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Only the Weak Give Ultimatums

Posted on Aug 1, 2016 by Jim Peake


The next time you unleash your anger and are on the verge of dropping a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum on someone, I want you to picture this:

a tiny, 8-pound dog yapping at the feet of a German Shepherd

Tiny has only one arrow in his quiver. He either goes in big and convinces the vastly more powerful dog to respect him, or he becomes a pre-dinner snack for his opponent.  Here’s the thing… the big dog isn’t an opponent at all. He was minding his own business, and was perfectly happy to co-exist. Only the weak give ultimatums. It’s a sign that you are down to just one option, or that anger or frustration or brute reflex has taken control of your brain.

This has happened to me on occasion when I’ve been surprised by the suddenness and intensity of what I perceive to be an attack on me. Imagine a co-worker walking into your office and – without any warning whatsoever – launching into a tirade about what a stupid, careless, pitiful loser you are. No matter what you say, he is unrelenting. If you’re like me, eventually a switch in your head may trip and you’ll start screaming right back.

In this situation, it is incredibly easy to arrive at an idiotic ultimatum. “You either shut up or I will {insert threat here}.  A better course of action would be to utterly change the dynamic in the room by saying something unexpected, such as, “I don’t have time for a history lesson, Bill, I’m already late for my bowling match.”

Even better, offer Bill a piece of gum as you leave your own office to take a walk around the block to give him room to disappear.  When working with people who have addiction problems, it is almost never effective to say, “If you don’t stop drinking you will {die/lose your house/lose your family}.  Here’s a better course of action. Before you push the other person into a corner, try backing off a bit. In many cases, your opponent is confronting you simply because – like Tiny – they feel threatened or trapped.

For example, you might ask a few questions of the other person:

  • Would you like to take a break so each of us can give this some thought?
  • Could we change the dynamics of our conversation or negotiation?
  • Would you like to seek input from others before we continue?

The basic idea is to give each of you time to avoid a dead-end.

Remember, ultimatums mainly serve to signal both you and the other party that you are out of options. Occasionally they work in the short run – the other party may be out of options, too – but they seldom are effective long-term solutions.

Still this is hard to remember in the heat of a crisis, negotiation or fight. That’s why I leave you with this not-so-subtle reminder:

Tiny Dog










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