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<xTITLE>An Idle Threat</xTITLE>

An Idle Threat

by Phyllis Pollack

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack


       At some point in just about every dispute that I have mediated, one of the parties has said to me, “This is our final offer – tell the other side to take it or leave it!”

      How do I respond? It depends upon the situation at the time. In an interesting article entitled “Threat Response at the Bargaining Table” in the January 2008 issue of the Harvard Negotiation Newsletter, the authors suggest the following response.

      First, immediately call for a break – take a time out to allow the parties to calm down rather than storm out of the mediation. Then once the party is calm, analyze the threat: is it one that the party is likely to follow through on or was it simply made in the heat of the moment and so should be ignored? Is the threat one that was made – not for the other party’s benefit - but in an effort to save face with third parties who may or may not be participating in the mediation? If so, do not take the threat seriously.

      However, if you believe the threat may be serious, then you need to defuse the situation. To do this, paraphrase back to the party what you heard her say, to make sure you heard it correctly. Often, as a result of the paraphrasing, the party will realize that she did not mean to say what you heard – it “came out” wrong or you “heard” it wrong. This provides her with an opportunity to save face and claim it was a misunderstanding.

      Further, you can simply ask broad open-ended questions to the party in response to the threat, in an effort to understand why she made the ultimatum. By asking such questions, the party will reveal her reasoning or thought process, and in the process of doing so, may change her mind. Again, a “misunderstanding” or a “miscommunication” may be uncovered that allows the party to save face and propose something different and not so threatening.

      The above two suggestions are predicated on “active listening” – to really listen to what is being said and what is not being said: To understand and acknowledge the emotions behind the words. Oftentimes, simply acknowledging that the other person is angry or frustrated greatly defuses the situation and builds forward momentum. Once you acknowledge how the other party feels and what is the situation from her perspective or side of the table, she will be more inclined to work with you in resolving the problem.

       So. . . the next time you are in a negotiation or a mediation and the other party makes a threat. . . don’t react with a knee-jerk response. Rather, sit back, take a deep breathe and analyze why and where the threat is coming from. Should you simply ignore it or take it as a signal of something deeper that is going on and use “active listening” to find out? . . .Using such a measured response will more likely lead to a resolution instead of everyone storming out in a huff!

        . . . Just something to think about.   


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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