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.

Heroes, conspiracy theories, and biscuits

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In a time when political gamesmanship rules the day, it’s refreshing to know that heroes still walk among us. Take a Secret Service agent I will refer to as “B.” When I last saw B, I had stopped momentarily by his traffic booth in front of the White House to let him know his recommendation a few days earlier for nearby breakfast biscuits (WTF—Woodward Takeout Food) had made my morning. He patted his stomach and assured me he knew his biscuits.

He promptly returned to the tasks at hand, checking a truck that was seeking entrance to the White House. As I walked on to my next meeting, his unassuming yet professional, firm but good-natured, manner left me feeling the security of those around me was being well served.

Moving forward 11 weeks, the government had shut down. Pay was being cut off to his household, but as an employee deemed “essential” he was expected to report to work, paycheck or not. And on Oct. 3, he was at his duty station, still carefully stopping traffic seeking to enter the White House. Suddenly a vehicle crashed into the security checkpoint. Without drawing his gun or using other force, B motioned the driver to stop.

The driver aimed the car at him and gunned the engine, crashing into B, knocking him in the air, rolling him over the hood and windshield, then finally on to the pavement, where his head was narrowly missed by her tires. The driver fled the White House area and headed toward the Capitol at a high speed, putting pedestrians in danger and breaching another security zone. The driver rammed a Secret Service vehicle at the Capitol and ignored the handful of \officers with drawn weapons who attempted to stop the car.

The driver backed up, nearly hitting Capitol Police officers, and sped away, resulting in officers opening fire. Encountering another barrier, the driver ran into a guard house not far from the Supreme Court. During the chase, a Capitol Police officer was reported injured when his car struck a barricade. Eventually more shots were fired by the police and the driver was killed.

Police then learned the driver had her 1-year-old with her — thankfully unharmed. Though it was certainly capable of killing, her car turned out to have been her only weapon. We now know the driver had a history of mental illness.

Critics have questioned whether excessive force was used by the officers who fired at the driver. Had the driver been in a car packed with explosives that was run past barriers into tourist-filled areas, causing countless deaths, you can be sure the same critics would have demanded to know why the same officers did not do more to stop the car.

Being second-guessed at everything you do and having the worst of motives attributed to you is often the price of public service anywhere; this is truer than ever in Washington these days. Moreover, never slowed by facts, conspiracy theorists prove themselves to be nature’s most reliable source of endless renewable energy. Every tragedy is another chance to prove a plot.

In this tragedy, the driver’s actions sent B to the hospital and left the rest of us very grateful he was alive. B’s response was not anger at the woman but a wish he had been able to do something to help her when they encountered each other. We all would wish society could have helped keep the driver from reaching the point that her mental issues would cause her to drive in a manner that led law enforcement to believe she was the sort of threat people like B are trained to stop. The driver’s willingness to subject her child to such dangers reflected her desperate mental state.

In a week he was working without pay, B to his great detriment risked his own safety in an attempt to resolve the situation without force, coming close to laying down his life for others. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill gave a standing ovation to the law enforcement response to the incident. But they apparently were not moved enough to ensure B and the Capitol Police officer who suffered injuries would get their paychecks before the shutdown ends.

Physical condition permitting, you can be sure both officers will plan to be back at their jobs, paychecks or not, protecting those they serve without regard to the insanity that so often goes on around them.

Many these days enjoy vilifying federal employees. Those like B would assure us they are not heroes, but then that is the sort of thing a real hero would say. Including one who knows his biscuits.

There is no disputing the incident was a true tragedy. But perhaps we can suspend for a day the second-guessing and conspiracy theories that are their own breed of mental illness. Instead, let’s pause to thank our heroes.

{This material originally appeared as a Board of Contributors column by David Schleicher in the October 13, 2013 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, at page A10 and is (c) 2013 Waco Tribune-Herald.}