Dealing with Ultimatums / Hostage Patterns

You've all heard them before.

  • "My way or the highway."
  • "Well if you don't want me doing that, I won't do anything."
  • "If you do X, that's the end of it, I'll Y."

What are "ultimatums" or "hostage patterns"?

The word "hostage" here refers to someone holding someone hostage to their own needs/expectations. In each case of the above... someone who uses these patterns above is doing so either from a position of a need for control, a fear of losing control, anger over perceived lack of appreciation, or an emotional "threshold" whereby if their own demands aren't met, some consequence will be delivered to (or something will be taken away from) the listeners.


On occasion, this is seen as masterful management, when there's a very strong leader at the helm. If a company is extremely successful... then nobody wants to mess with success. All well and good in such a situation, if you're Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But most ultimatum situations aren't central to a success strategy; in fact, most of the time they are a recipe for disaster, or at least a painfully slow demise. If you throw a frog into boiling water, it jumps out. If you throw a frog into tepid water, and very slowly heat that water, the frog will stay put & be cooked.

Most of the time, ultimatums and hostage patterns are a form of behavioral dysfunction. It's worse when it becomes an organizational dysfunction, because decisions have to be made by committees and can't be made fast, "at will." Such an organization can potentially be the proverbial Frog, slowly boiling to its own death, unaware anything is actually happening.

What's the Problem? And how to Solve it?

If you cater to these demands, if you agree to their hostage pattern, you are as much or more a part of the dysfunction than was the person who delivered their ultimatum. And if you REMAIN supportive of that organizational dysfunction, your very behavior is teaching others that it's OK to deliver ultimatums, and it's OK to cater to or support them.

Many people are completely unaware they're part of the problem. Some are aware, but prefer to remain complacent. They think breaking out of the dysfunction would take too much effort. Yet what lesson does that teach others? Others are almost always watching, and learning.

Here's another problem. There is no easy way to slowly and gently exit dysfunctional patterns like these. The only practical way to break dysfunctional patterns like these, in any sort of timely way, is to:

(a) introduce entirely new patterns that are more desirable for the larger system (group, household, marriage, whatever)... and practice those new patterns/behaviors/choices until they become a new habit that replaces the old one.


(b) break the old pattern, cold-turkey. Exit the dysfunction. Refuse to cater to the ultimatum.

The most challenging aspect of all this is -- usually relationships are involved. Centrally involved.

Often in disagreements, it's useful to ask the question:

"What's more important, your point? Or the relationship?"

Most of the time, in most disagreements, the answer is... the relationship.

However, when ultimatums or hostage patterns are involved, if you value independence, proactivity and balance, and want to be a good example for others... most of the time, the answer isn't "the relationship."

Yet, one can't be quite so cold in discarding connections, especially when other relationships are affected as well! This is why it's so challenging to resolve organizational dysfunction! To do so requires a deeply skilled navigator of cause-effect patterns, and cooperation from at least some of the organization.