Threats as a Negotiation Strategy

by Mr. Cheap

I grew up with an older brother and part of that experience was learning how to deal with disagreements. One thing that I think we both discovered fairly early on is that threats are rarely a good way to get what you want. I’m amazed at how often people try to use them within an ongoing relationship and am perplexed that they haven’t clued in to how ineffective they are.

To start, I’d like to clarify what I mean by a threat (people have commented that it’s odd when I give definitions at the beginning of a post, but commenters regularly misunderstand what I was getting at, sometimes believing I’ve asserted the exact opposite of what I intended, so it’s worthwhile to take the time to be clear). A threat CAN be physical violence (“do this or I’ll hurt you”), but it can also be removing something good (“do this or no desert for you”), changing the relationship (“do this or I’ll break up with you”) or emotional (“do this or I’ll be angry with you”).  Heck, you can even threaten SELF-HARM (“Pay my rent or I’m going to be living on the street”) and use the fact that someone cares about you against them (I personally find this particularly odious).

I think in each case, it sometimes works to get you what you want, but it comes at a cost of damaging the underlying relationship. This can be fine in some situations, such as a one-off transaction with a street vendor while on vacation (“give me a better price or I’m walking away”), but usually the long term hurt isn’t worth any (potential) short term gain.

I love the board game “Risk” (and putting modesty aside I’m fairly good at it). Typically in Risk it’s important to avoid two-front wars, and if you can get the other players to leave you alone while you hammer on one of them (ideally with help from at least one other player), you’re half-way to winning.  Sometimes when I’d hammered away at someone and left them in tatters, I’d tell them I’d let them live if they promised not to attack me (a threat) or to join me in attacking someone else.  This would let me focus on a bigger threat, instead of committing resources to wiping them out completely.  They’d either refuse, and I’d have to wipe them out, or they’d agree and betray me at the earliest possible opportunity (Risk cards allow a weak player to explode later in the game).

The realization I eventually had was, it was a bigger cost to their ego to feel like they’d given in to my bullying them than it was worth for them to stay in the game.  They’d rather reject my demand (and suffer the consequences) than feel like they’d “given in”.  What’s bizarre is even when they stakes are much higher than a board game, people still have the same reaction.  For a world leader to get on the TV and proclaim “We do NOT negotiate with terrorists” makes them look strong and powerful, when in fact, they may be doing a disservice to those they represent.

I contacted some property owners who had units which had been available for rent for an extended period locally (over 4 months).  The owners were eager to talk about selling, but quickly made it clear that they expected me to jump through hoops to buy from them.  They were clearly at a disadvantage in the negotiation (since we both knew their property was sitting empty costing them money each month), but they were so desperate to strengthen their position that I wasn’t able to reach an agreement with any of them (one wouldn’t even let me make an offer – he demand the offer exceed “market rate” but couldn’t tell me what he thought market rate was or how he would calculate it).

Within an employment context, threats to fire or quit are EXTREMELY harmful.  I’ve basically taken the position that I don’t mention quitting until I’m 100% sure I’m leaving.  I’ll try to talk about problems, but I never would mention quitting until I was certain I would leave.  At a number of workplaces they tried to convince me to stay, but at that point I would be a lame duck.  They’re going to remember I was ready to leave, and that will affect any future promotions or assignments.  One retired man I talked to once told me that in all his years of working, he’d found when someone threatened to quit and were convinced by management to stay, they’d usually be fired within 6 months.  Management convinced them to stay so they’d have more time to transition them out of the role they were in, not because they wanted to keep the employee.  Similarly with threats to fire someone, how many times will they need to hear that before they decide it’s better to get another job before it happens?

There’s a clear moral reason against threats (it’s not a particularly honourable way to negotiate), but on top of that they aren’t effective at getting what you want.  On top of that, it makes it harder to negotiate with the person in the future.  If there’s ever a good time to use a threat in a negotiation, it’s very rare (perhaps in life or dead survival situations or one-off interactions like the street vendor mentioned above).

Reacting to threats is also a funny situation.  It’s always tempting (and so very satisfying) to say your own variation of “I don’t negotiate with terrorists” and shut down talks after someone has threatened you.  I think this is less than optimal as well, because you lose any options that might have come out of negotiations with that person.  Giving in to threats is very dangerous (you’ve validated to the other person that threats are a good way to get what they want from you, and they’ll be more likely to threaten in the future).  Setting aside your ego and continuing the interaction can still possibly lead to agreement.  I gave up on the for sale by owners after they’d threatened me, but I should have kept the lines of communication open and told them that I want to buy their property if they decide to sell in the future.

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