How Public Officials Can Deal with Threats

Public officials often must deal with numerous threats and must do so with the most cautious and calculated approach. Also, with deep divisions and heated public debate impacting the U.S. political arena in recent years, it is not surprising that public figures face increasing harassment and violent threats. Some high-profile figures respond with heightened security, while others resign their positions to escape the dangers of public visibility. A 2021 National League of Cities study reported that 81% of the public officials surveyed had recently experienced threats, harassment, or violence.

Public Officials and the Threat to Deal With

For those public figures who seek to address potential threats without showing weakness or increasing the conflict, the following tips help to redirect the conversation.

Assess the Threat

Determining what provoked the threat is critical to forming a successful response. Additionally, an effective way to diagnose a threat involves these steps:

• Step away from the situation, literally or figuratively, to calm emotions and focus on the facts of the issue

• Think about what motivated the threat

• Identify the threatener as (1) a victim acting out of frustration or offense, (2) a bluffer acting out of insecurity or power-hunger, or (3) a pragmatist informing you of actual issues or alternatives that the officials might deal with. 

Listen Carefully

When conflicted individuals tell their stories and express their emotions, they are more likely to be satisfied with the outcomes, even when they aren’t favorable to them. If you go further and express understanding after listening, it will reduce tension and possibly stave off additional threats.

Ask Questions

Understand that a threat may include veiled information or needs one should acknowledge. Asking questions enables you to examine the threatener’s needs and alternatives to find a possible area of agreement or compromise. Consider asking direct questions to uncover the motivation of the threat and the potential consequences that could result.

Label the Issue

If you determine through questioning that the threat is merely an attempt to intimidate, your response will be much different than a threat that carries real danger. Labeling the issue for what it is – a threat – gives you control by calling attention to the situation and letting your opponent know that you are aware of what’s going on. You may say, “I don’t respond to threats. Let’s talk this through instead,” which neutralizes the harmful intents and helps to turn the conversation toward the positive.

Issue a Counter-Threat

If you’ve tried everything else and the aggressor is not responsive to your restorative attempts, you can try issuing a counter-threat. Likewise, this approach should be used with caution and only in a legally appropriate manner. Still, sometimes a counter-threat can help to cement your credibility and allow you to move toward a mutually acceptable solution.

Public figures are easy targets for harassment and aggression, but they don’t have to be victims using these tips for dealing with threats.

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