Opinion

Three Questions: Prof. Zoë Chance on the Standoff between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump

Last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wrote to President Donald Trump and proposed delaying the State of the Union address until the government shutdown is resolved or replacing it with a written statement. We asked Yale SOM’s Zoë Chance, an expert in influence and persuasion, about the method behind Pelosi’s suggestion. 


You described Nancy Pelosi’s letter to Donald Trump about the State of the Union as a “collaborative threat.” Could you describe what that is and why you think it’s an effective negotiating tactic? 

A collaborative threat is when you politely alert the other party that something terrible is in danger of happening—but there’s a way to avoid it. You’re the one with more leverage, but you frame the situation as being under their control. They’re the boss. And because you’re polite—or even sincerely nice—they can’t get mad at you without looking stupid. And it would be stupid to get mad at you, because your politeness helps them save face.

When Speaker Pelosi wrote to the president about the State of the Union address, she was politely alerting him of the possibility of missing out on hours of national and international television coverage—while he still had the opportunity to prevent this from happening, by ending the government shutdown for which he had taken personal responsibility. She was saying, “I know you were hoping to give the State of the Union Address on TV this month, bless your heart, and it’s so unfortunate to have the darn shutdown getting in the way! But if we work together…just putting my thinking cap on here…what about in writing on the 29th? Or if TV is better for you, I know, we could reschedule for after the thingamabob. How would that be for you?” When you use a collaborative threat, you’re letting someone know you have leverage and saying, “Gosh I’d hate to have to use it! Let’s be friends.”

As speaker of the House, Pelosi has leverage because the State of the Union address, when delivered in person, has always been delivered in House chambers. The president visits at the speaker’s invitation. And by putting the president’s media exposure at risk, she was threatening a resource he holds dear and mentions often. She refrained from blaming the president for the problem and presented herself as a polite and willing ally. This is a perfect example of a collaborative threat. Pelosi is a grand master of the art of the deal.

When you use a collaborative threat, you’re letting someone know you have leverage and saying, “Gosh I’d hate to have to use it! Let’s be friends.”

You can use this technique too. As an employee, you might use it when you’ve been promised a raise or promotion that isn’t coming through. You’d say something like, “Gosh, I’d really hate to start interviewing. I mean, if a competitive offer is what it will take, I can get one…but of course to be in integrity, I’d have to consider it seriously. And I’d rather not do that, I love working here with you.” As a customer, you might use it when there’s been a service failure that isn’t getting resolved. “You know, I’m active on social media and I love posting reviews and shout outs when I get great service… I really don’t enjoy posting negative reviews, but sometimes I do it when things go really wonky, because I want to save others from similar frustration. Do you think there might be some way for us to turn this wonky situation around?” For a collaborative threat to be effective in any situation, it should be sincere and graceful. And of course no influence technique is effective 100% of the time. 

What do you make of the president’s retaliation?

The president responded by canceling Speaker Pelosi’s planned trip to Afghanistan. She was to have flown on military aircraft, controlled by him as commander-in-chief. The reasons cited in the president’s letter were the government shutdown (hmm), and the need to be in Washington to negotiate terms. When asked if she thought if the president’s response was retaliation for her State of the Union letter, Speaker Pelosi cannily turned his move against him: “I would hope not. I don’t think the president would be that petty, do you?” Nobody puts Nancy Pelosi in a corner. 

Millions of other people are affected by this negotiation who may not feel they have any direct leverage. Do you have any suggestions for citizens who want to make a difference?

We do have leverage—when we take collective action. For citizens who want to influence their elected representatives, the Indivisible organization has created two now-famous guides, and spawned a well-organized grassroots movement. The movement began when, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, former congressional staffers Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg wrote down influence strategies in a Google Doc, sharing it with friends and on the web. The document went viral, and now thousands of Indivisible groups are taking action across the nation. I’m writing about Indivisible for my upcoming book on influence because their group is one of the best examples I’ve seen of helping individuals influence the powerful. They’ve based their strategies on learning from the Tea Party movement’s successes and keeping power in the organization decentralized.

Assistant Professor of Marketing