Don’t Read This! Or Else!

However much you may have enjoyed being a child, chances are you don’t like being treated like one now. And that you feel like you are being treated as a child when someone gives you an order about how to behave. Such as ordering you not to read a particular blog post.

When you feel like someone is treating you like you are a child, it is natural to respond like a child. Whatever you may say out loud, your inner two-year old is yelling, “NO!” Like a child, when someone orders that you don’t do “X”, your desire to do “X” is suddenly increased. “Reactance” is what psychologists call that urge you feel to do the opposite of what you are ordered to do, as your mind resists what it perceives as a threat to its freedom.

You probably would agree that direct orders and threats rarely motivate you to do your best. Having served on a school board for six years, I found that someone in a conflict with the district who threatened to sue or to make sure a particular board member lost their next election rarely motivated my fellow board members in the intended direction.

In my years as a lobbyist and in my later practice of law, many times I have seen those threatened take their eyes off of the problem to be solved and instead focus on fighting the threat-maker. We know threats don’t work on us, yet it is one of the first things we try on others when we are not getting our way.

Clients sometimes will ask me why I didn’t raise more hell with the lawyer on the other side of the case. The reason is that when an attorney on the other side from me starts yelling and making loud demands, I begin to think that what I have been doing for my client has been effective enough to get under their skin. In other words, it tells me I might just be winning. I also cut off negotiations until the lawyer can get back some self-control and I may document the details of the conversation in an email or a letter.

Lawyers on the other side of cases have told me that they appreciate that I argue the law and the facts, rather than pounding my shoe on the table. Some of those same lawyers have come to me when they got in legal trouble or referred friends. Shoe pounding does make some clients feel better, but it does not serve their interests.

As challenging as it is not to make threats the first arrow in our quill, it is hard work training ourselves when threatened to stay focused on what is in our interests versus on the urge to squash the threat-maker. It may be, for example, that a settlement would be in your interest even though the threat you just heard makes you want to fight to your last dollar. A truly devious opponent may threaten you simply to make you act irrationally in response.

There are rare occasions when a threat is necessary and even rarer instances when it is productive. If you are going to have to impose a very severe consequence on someone–such as firing them or invading their country–then it is rational to give advance warning that “if you do ‘X’, then I will do ‘Y’.” It also may be needed so that those watching realize that the severe option also was your last option. But even in these situations, the threat (such as to another country’s leader) often results in a reaction that is the adult or national equivalent of “nanny, nanny, boo, boo…”

If you must threaten, make sure that the threat can be carried out successfully. If not, the next threat you make make be answered not with anger, but derision. The better approach is to set out the facts as you see them and let your subordinate or opponent come to see the threat on their own.

For example, rather than telling a sales team, “Every one increase sales by 20% this quarter or I’ll fire you,” try explaining that you have $1 million less in revenue than expenses and hope you can count on the sales team to help the workforce survive these challenging times. Set a date on everyone’s calendar three months from then to jointly review the sales results.

Rather than threatening an opponent with litigation that you say will embarrass them for their evil deeds, consider suggesting to them you would like to explore options for reaching an agreed resolution that would avoid the headaches of litigation for all involved. Just today, I observed someone attempt to persuade a group to change course by telling them that they would become irrelevant if they did not, adding that some of their concerns were absurd. The reaction was not a change of mind but anger over the perceived presumptiveness.

Just as you can draw more flies with honey than vinegar, facts may persuade, but threats almost never do. If someone is pointing a gun at you and telling you to hand over your money, you may comply. The boss that leaves employees feeling they had a gun pointed at them, on the other hand, will leave those employees looking for excuses to undermine her for the other 39 hours and fifty-five minutes of that week.

The fundamental rule is this: what doesn’t work to persuade you, probably doesn’t persuade others either.

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