Negotiation Tip #2 – When Should You “Go Nuclear” & Detonate the Nuclear Option?


This is the second article in a three-part series providing negotiation tips and advice – encouraging your professional and business success. The guidance in this series promotes your ability to skillfully get what you want, negotiate and influence, and navigate difficult conversations. Click here to read our first article on the importance of focusing on key priorities and here to read our third article on the importance of compromise and the “art of no deal.”

At some point in every negotiation – especially when things become tense or you are dealing with people who are pricklier than a porcupine – you are faced with the decision of whether you should alter your negotiation style. Is it time to reach into your ugly bag, inflict some pain on the other side’s pressure points, and “go nuclear” to try to end their tomfoolery?

While you may have some lofty fantasy that this will play to your favor like you are “going to the mattresses” in The Godfather, proceed with caution! The people with whom you are negotiating may not line up to bow and kiss your ring. Instead, they may elect to “take no prisoners” and deploy countervailing measures such that you become the real collateral damage. That being said, there may be times when deploying “the nuclear option” is your best option.

There’s No Turning Back

“Going nuclear” may mean different things to different people. However, in many instances it involves changing your posturing to a more hostile and aggressive tone, indirectly or overtly threatening things like litigation or crushing someone’s business, or engaging in strategic plays that put external pressure on the parties, their business, or their affiliates. This mainly involves playing on people’s fears with the pressure of losing something they value – like money, business, or key relationships.

When you decide to “go nuclear,” first and foremost you have to understand that there may be no turning back. It is difficult to rewind things once you begin shifting course. Becoming nastier often invites an equal or higher level of nastiness and threatening countermoves. Also, if you threaten to turn up the heat, then be prepared to back this up with real action. If you just make empty threats, you could lose your credibility, people will not take you seriously, and you could relinquish power, leverage, and respect.

Be Ready to Walk Away

You should only pursue this course when you are also ready to fully walk away from what you want. The end result could mean leaving everything on the table. If what they have agreed to up to that point is valuable enough, then consider if you are truly ready turn that down.

If you are comfortable losing everything, then it may be acceptable to consider “going nuclear” as one of your strategic options.

Ask – Does “Dropping the Mic” Help Reach Your Goal or Shoot You in the Foot?

Before dropping the bomb, you need to ask yourself a few crucial questions.

  • Are your emotions getting the best of you?
  • Are they just pushing your buttons so you react with hostility?
  • Do they suspect you have no backbone and are weak?
  • Is this going to truly help bring you closer to what you want?
  • Have you considered the big picture?
  • Is this move in alignment with your core priorities?
  • Do you have the stomach to ride out the aftermath?
  • Does the other side need to see you flex to know you are not a doormat?
  • Will this burn bridges and test relationships?
  • Are you being petty?

After asking yourself these questions, you are better poised to evaluate where “going nuclear” will leave you, and if it brings you closer to pushing the button or if you need to follow a different approach in the negotiation.

Do You Care About the Relationship?

No matter how much you may want to stick it to the other side and may actually loath them, you have to remember that no negotiation ever takes place in a bubble. Consider the long-term repercussions on your relationships with the parties, colleagues, and business partners. Even if you determine that in this particular instance you either do not care to continue a relationship with the parties and could care less about them, this does not mean that your reputation or business will not suffer.

If this negatively impacts your company’s or personal brand, then you may have to buck up and continue to play nice in the sandbox. Under no circumstances should you ruin your reputation, or cut off other business or professional opportunities. However, if part of your goal is that you want people generally to know you are not a pushover, then make sure you are never disrespectful, cruel, or evil when “going nuclear.” It is one thing to be firm and inflict some amount of pressure or pain, it is a completely different thing to be a jerk. Always avoid being malicious and despicable when pressing that red button that unleashes stress on people.

Maybe It’s Time to Just Go For It

After considering how “going nuclear” can play out for you on multiple levels, if you decide the time is ripe to give them a taste of some bitter medicine, then do so with as much integrity as possible. Only inflict the minimum amount of pressure and pain needed to achieve your desired result. If you can fully crush them, consider stopping short of obliterating them so they can retain some pride and you can maintain your self-respect.

Final Thoughts

Whatever you decide to do, the only thing you can control in any negotiation is yourself, how you behave, and what actions you pursue. You can turn up the heat, but you may not get what you want in the end. People push our buttons all the time. Sometimes they intentionally want to illicit this precise response from you in a Machiavellian attempt to play on your emotions. It could be that your decision to become hostile or ramp up the pressure on them is exactly what they want.

Just remember – as you try to signal you are strong, that foolishness is right next door to strength. When you decide that you prefer to go down with a fight and are electing to go out with a potential bang instead of a whisper, you may end up doing just that – going out!

Choose your strategy wisely. If you have evaluated the consequences, are comfortable with the downside, and hope it will shift things in your favor – then and only then should you drop that bomb and see if the radiation drifts in your direction too. When the path of destruction heads your way, have a plan ready, and, hopefully, some ointment to ease the sting.

For priority-setting advice, check out the first article in this series.

For advice on compromising, check out the third article in this series.


The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace – providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success. TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services to help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their business and career objectives. TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent, and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.

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