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Empty Threats Change Nothing

Mediation and Business Consulting by Kathleen Kauth.

“That’s the last straw!”

“If you don’t do ________ then it’s over”

“I will never forgive you if you ______”

Ultimatums are usually born out of extreme frustration from a lack of agreement on specific issues.  An ultimatum is often an action of last resort designed to force compliance by manipulating the other person through emotions like guilt or fear of consequences.  Issuing an ultimatum out of frustration is rarely successful.  Without careful planning of the consequences of either accepting or rejecting the ultimatum, often times they come across as empty threats.  

If compliance is achieved through an ultimatum, it is often temporary and can have ramifications such as passive aggressive behavior, outright resistance or the other person making plans to leave the situation.  This leaves both parties deeply resentful and the issue rarely resolved.

The line in the sand

But are there times for an ultimatum? Yes — absolutely.  An ultimatum is not necessarily a bad thing.  An ultimatum should be less of a tool used to gain compliance, and more of a guideline for what can be accepted by establishing your limits for a particular situation. 

There will always be a point in a conflict that needs to be identified as the line in the sand.  The line in the sand is the point that cannot be crossed.  If it is crossed, specific actions need to be taken.  Understanding exactly what that line in the sand is should be very individual to each person.  This is why it takes thought and planning to actually give an ultimatum.  

Each person in a conflict needs to think deeply about their line in the sand.  Once they have determined it — they need to plan for the consequences of crossing that line.  Understand that for an ultimatum to actually be successful, you must follow through.  The consequences do not just affect one party — they affect both parties.  When someone issues an ultimatum with consequences that they are not ready to accept themselves (if you cheat again, I will leave you – maybe) that ultimatum will fail.

Preparing for the consequences

Because the consequences of an ultimatum impact both parties, the issuer needs to be prepared to take immediate steps to enact those consequences.

  • Emotionally: If a consequence is of a personal nature — establish a support system to help you talk through and plan for the ramifications of your decision.  If you have threatened to stop a relationship, how will you handle the emotional impact on yourself?
  • Financially: Have you planned for the financial nature of the consequences?  If you have threatened to leave a job or a spouse — are you financially prepared to make that change?
  • Physically: If you need to remove yourself or someone else physically from a situation, have you made arrangements to do so quickly?  
  • Socially: We do not exist in a vacuum.  When a consequence goes into effect, other people not directly involved will notice and most likely will voice opinions (whether desired or not).  Practice how to respond to the questions and criticisms that will inevitably be made.


In an ideal world, all conflict situations would be discussed and resolved.  However, there will always be situations that are untenable.  Existing in a limbo where a conflict is not resolved and changes are not made is not a healthy situation.  An ultimatum should be viewed as the last chance for change after numerous efforts at conflict resolution have been made.  Once an ultimatum has been made — stick to it.


Kathleen Kauth

Kathleen Kauth is President/Owner of K.T. Beck Enterprises, LLC a Mediation and Business Consulting firm which focuses on using Mediation techniques to help individuals, families and businesses resolve conflicts. With areas of interest in Eldercare and Business Mediation, we are able to provide a wide variety of personalized services.   MORE >

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