Parents frequently threaten a child with a timeout or, later, taking away their smart phone or curbing driving privileges. Be careful what you threaten. Some times, many times, children will test you. If you don't follow through on your threatened punishment, the child knows he or she can push the limits with impunity.
That's the logic Obama used in warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons in his battle to retain power. Now that Assad by all appearances has tested Obama and his red line, Obama faces the politically awkward choice of administering a military spanking. The President is in a box of his own making.
Business leaders frequently paint themselves into a similar corner. They make threats about layoffs or even shutting down and moving elsewhere, only later to back down.
The lesson is to bite your tongue when you feel a threat ready to pop out. There are smarter ways to handle touchy situations.
It may be too late for Obama to retract his red line and try something else, but here are some suggestions you might use:
Before threatening, try listening to opponents and see if you can detect areas of agreement or concerns you can alleviate. The act of getting off your high horse and talking directly to people is disarming. Even if some opponents remain abusive, stay clam and stress you are there to listen and learn. Your opponents will get the message.
Another tried-and-true way to disarm opponents is to recommend some sort of collaboration. This could be on a community project that would be funded if your proposal is approved or it could be a study of potential impacts. It may even take the form of mediation. Getting you and your opponents around a common table is a way for you to assess the mettle of your opponents and to build a basic level of trust.
People may be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if they see a greater good. One way to offer up a greater good is to innovate. Maybe it is an innovative community engagement process. Or an innovative community investment. Accompanying your project with an an innovative element could turn potential opponents into dedicated advocates.
Once you have engaged opponents, keep talking. Don't let your communications lapses become pauses that breed doubt and suspicion. Think of communication as the proof of your transparency. Tell the truth and tell it often.
Nothing builds trust more, even amid lingering disagreement, than diligent follow-through. Do what you say. Do it on time. If in doubt, do it more than you promised. Nobody ever gets mad when you do more than say you will do. But you give opponents opportunity on a platter when you don't do what you say.
Leave the red lines to someone else. Instead find the bright spots and cultivate them.