Monday, October 31, 2011

Learning to act right (22)… Threatening to threaten – making sanctions clear

Learning to act right (22)… Threatening to threaten – making sanctions clear
Torrey Orton
Oct. 31, 2011

A reader wondered how I could "threaten to threaten"* someone – in that case, threaten a protestor that I might seriously threaten him and his accomplices for their harassment of patients. That is, that I would take aggressive action to injure them in some way (not physically). The actual objective would be to shame them in the theatre of their choice for shaming others. A brief discussion about the situation with a verbally facile buddy delivered a string of punch lines, advertising hording material and such in 3 minutes, so I know it's doable.

"Threaten to threaten" goes like this:
  • Decide, preferably with the other, what our mutual expectations are for a specific activity.
  • Establish to myself that potentially serious shortfalls in their performance seem to be happening
  • Formulate appropriate step(s) I might take to sanction them for breaking our agreement(s)
  • Invite them to discuss how we are doing with our mutual undertakings
  • Have this discussion in private; if necessary, out of sight and hearing of others with an interest but not a stake in your relationship
  • Make clear that what I am about to say is a threat to threaten more seriously at a later time if things do not change in the specific matters of concern to me.
  • Conditionally offer an actual threat I might use ( if you / then I type of formulation)
  • Note their non-verbal reaction to the threat – are they shocked, etc.
  • Check it is clear to the them
  • Check their perception of the appropriateness, intensity, focus, etc. of the threat.
  • Invite them to consider changing their performance….Consider changing my threat.

The next step would be an announcement that the threat is about to be executed, if they fail to respond appropriately. Then, do it.

People often wonder why others don't take them seriously in everyday life interchanges, especially in pursuit or defence of their own interests. All too often this, on examination, is because they have not been clear about their expectations / needs with those others. Being clear is not easy, especially under pressure. Both sender and receiver, to use an old, simplistic but resiliently tenacious image, are likely to have their communication machinery befuddled.

There are at least four virtues of the "threaten to threaten" tactic:

One, the ethical part of this is not dropping a surprise punishment on someone which they might have escaped if they knew one was coming for certain behaviour(s). This virtue is the private version of the management principal that leaders are morally obliged to warn their staff of dangers arising for them from contextual factors they could not know or guess by themselves – an impending buyout, default, bankruptcy, catastrophic technology or market developments, etc.

Two, the threatened threat may elicit the other's perception of our needs, our shared circumstances, or their needs, which may change the understanding of the total context. In other words a challenging event may increase our understanding of the realities we are in, if we engage it in a challenging way, out of the heart of our needs.

Three, threatening to threaten shows that we can act with effective restraint in strong ways without blowing things up irreparably, that we can act with strength and focus in appropriately modulated ways. Perceived self-control may increase the potential for negotiating difficult matters. Threatening to threaten demonstrates such control, as do other tactics like self-disclosure, and self-rebuke.

Four, the first three above may deepen and humanise the relationship in question.

*I learned this tactic 20 years ago on the negotiation training ground of Effective Negotiation Services. The basic influencing idea is do not threaten if you do not mean it. A fake threat is worse than no threat, especially when it establishes your bottom line or walk away position so the other party knows that an end game is approaching and can better gauge their need to win at all costs. If your 'Don't tread on me' point turns out to be posturing, expect to be counter-postured into even greater losses.

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