When is the best time to threaten someone?:

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I don’t necessarily mean to wave a clenched fist, but in any sort of negotiation — and any conflict is a negotiation. In a study of bill collectors threats worked best when the person on the other side was nonresponsive and wasn’t being negative. If they were being negative, it was best to encourage them:

We hypothesise that the effectiveness of threats and encouragements is contingent on the intended recipient’s level of negative affect, as evidenced by his/her negative affective display. Therefore, bargainers can be more effective if, as they make offers, they condition any threats or encouragements on the recipient’s affective display. We test this hypothesis using 5561 verbal exchanges that occurred during 192 telephone conversations between credit collectors and debtors. Collectors were most effective in motivating debtors to discuss terms to resolve their debt if they: (1) threatened recipients who were nonresponsive and did not show any negative affect; and (2) encouraged recipients who displayed negative affect. This result suggests that making threats and encouragements contingent on a recipient’s displays of negative affect may be an important but frequently overlooked component of bargaining.

Source: “When threats and encouragements are effective in bargaining: The case of credit collectors” from the journal “Cognition and Emotion”

This sort of jives with what I believe since it presents threats almost as a last ditch effort to a nonresponsive negotiation partner. Generally, I’m not a big fan of threats. My friend John (who was part of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School) had this to say about threats:

A threat is “I will do something that hurts you even if it’s bad for me.” A warning is: “This serves my interests and is bad for you.” It’s better to try to convert your threats into warnings. Threats are no good, warnings are. So how do you present a warning?:

“The smartest thing in this situation for me is to_____. I don’t want to do that but you’re putting me in a situation where….”

John’s book is here. Another seminal book on influence is here. 

Here’s my digest of Things you didn’t know about negotiation, persuasion and influence, updated regularly with new Svengali techniques to bend people to your will and make them your unwitting mind-slaves. Well, kinda.   

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About Eric Barker