The problem with ultimatums

Every now and again, I receive an ultimatum. I live such a peaceful life now, that they’re actually pretty rare for me so I don’t give ultimatums anymore. I think I’ve never been in the habit of giving ultimatums, anyway, because I never saw them as a practical use of personal power.

An ultimatum is a threat to carry out an act if some other condition is not met. Here is the definition (Merriam-Webster):

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A final proposition or demand. A statement, where rejection of that statement would result in the use of force or some other direct action. In short, an ultimatum is a threat made by one against another, usually someone of lesser power. An ultimatum is usually delivered by the one with more power than the other. An ultimatum is based on the confidence one has to carry out the act which is threatened, unless a desired condition is met.

Ultimatums are what we get when negotiations break down. “I can’t what I want from you by saying, ‘please’. You have rejected my previous requests, so now I turn my request into a demand. You will do what I say, or else.”

Or else, what? Do what I say, or I will leave you. Do what I say, or I quit. Do what I say, or you’re grounded. Do what I say, or your fired. Do what I say, or I will end it all.

The problem with ultimatums is that they require enough power to execute on the threat being made, and a willingness to follow through. This is why I don’t make ultimatums. If I make an ultimatum, my power will be tested and I might actually have to carry out the act that I said I would, an act that I didn’t really want to do, anyway.

As a negotiation strategy, ultimatums are terrible. They are a show of hands, and almost always show to me, that the one supposedly with the greater power, really does not have as much power as I thought they did. I consider ultimatums as a sign of weakness, but not as an opening for insult or attack. Rather, I see ultimatums now, as an opening for further negotiation.

I know that when someone delivers an ultimatums to me, they want me to change something about me. I have received ultimatums after weeks or even months of signaling. I have learned patience with people who deliver ultimatums because the threat that is issued in an ultimatum is almost certainly not a desirable outcome for either party. So I have learned to look upon such people with compassion, even if I may be uncomfortable with the threat brandished before me.

Early in my adult life, maybe even in childhood, I managed to avoid being the target of ultimatums by choice. I’ve had a few issued by my parents, and didn’t like how I felt. So I learned to avoid those kinds of situations and I learned to see them coming long before fruition. I didn’t issue them often myself, mostly because I’ve spent a lot my adult life living alone. I spent a lot of time preparing for relationships because I lacked the capacity to establish and maintain any more than a distant friendship with others. I wanted a relationship very much, but I feared the ultimatum.

As I grew older, more experienced, wiser from reading, sharing in groups and getting into deeper friendships, I became less afraid. I spent a great deal of time figuring out what my needs were and learning to address them. I still have some difficulty addressing my needs. Identifying them. Meeting them. Learning how to express my needs and get them met. I learned that it was up to me to ask for help in meeting my needs, as there are some needs that can only be met by others. This seems to be a peculiar design of humanity, but one that has led to the success of the same.

An ultimatum therefore, is a sign of an unmet need, it may be real or imagined, but it is still an unmet need. When I see or hear of an ultimatum, I remind myself that I never want to see how far people are willing to go to prove they’re right when they are filled with anger and rage. So I de-escalate as much as possible.

I have learned an interesting lesson from my children: how to talk through a meltdown. People tend to issue ultimatums when they’re in a meltdown. Their reactor blown, tears streaming down their faces, flailing, yelling, shouting, screaming, I can sit through it all because I can turn my hearing aid down, and because I don’t take anything they say, personally. My children have taught me that I don’t have to get angry just because they’re angry. So I just keep talking until their minds begin to wander, and the storm passes. I’ve even found this to work with adults, too.

The mind must wander. That’s how we’re built. If you’re mind isn’t wandering, you’re probably psychotic. In the same way that we can’t stare at something for a long period of time, our mind wanders. When people give me ultimatums, I talk with them and wait for their mind to wander.

When someone has issued an ultimatum, they are usually filled with emotion, so I talk with them. You know, like Mel Gibson in the opening scene to Lethal Weapon. In that scene, Mel’s character is a cop on a rooftop, talking to another man who is threatening to jump. Here, Mel is using the tendency of the mind to wander as a means to talk the other man out of suicide.

That’s what I see in people who make an ultimatum. I see a person who is about to make a very destructive and personal decision, one they don’t really wish to carry out. So I talk with them, compassionately. And I keep talking until their mind wanders enough to change the subject.

I often find, after the storm has passed, what the need is, what the ask is. For once I see that I have nothing more to lose, there is no point in holding back any questions. I will say what I wanted to say. I will ask for what I wanted. I say it because the odds of me getting what I wanted is zero if I don’t ask. My odds of getting what I want increase by 50% if I ask. And the same is true of the other person, now recovering from a meltdown.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask and ye shall receive. But be sure to say, “please”.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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