Attempted physical intimidation – settling a legal dispute

Attempting physical intimidation in the midst of a business legal dispute was an unexpected tactic. It surprised me, but it didn’t work.

Attempted physical intimidation – settling a legal dispute by Nancy knowlton

Some time ago our company had a dispute with another party. Both sides had their noses out of joint over a number of things. They sued, we sued, and we were into a big spat. Lawyers on each side made the other jump through hoops. Reams of documents were produced. Discoveries were held. Briefs were prepared and submitted to the court. Filings were made and affidavits submitted. It was a protracted process, and the legal bills kept an accurate tally of just how costly it was for us to wage the war offensively and defensively. Finally, the day came when we had an arbitration hearing on neutral ground to attempt to resolve the cases. The 2 sides were set up in separate conference rooms, and the arbitrator moved back and forth between the rooms.

Private meeting

Right after lunch the CEO of the other company asked me for a private meeting – no lawyers – just the 2 of us. I was pleased to have the opportunity, because to that point he, his colleagues and legal team had displayed a confident demeanor with little indication that they would do anything other than take the matter to the finish line and I thought that meant court. Reaching an appropriate settlement had always been our preferred route rather than battling to the end.

When I walked into the small conference room, the CEO came over to me and extended his hand – a gracious and positive gesture, I thought. His very large hand engulfed mine and pulled me toward him. He was a tall and imposing man, and with that gesture, he towered over me and made me feel small. He continued to hold my hand and his squeeze became harder, causing the ring that I was wearing to dig into my baby finger. He placed his left hand on my shoulder as he spoke.

When we finally separated and sat down, he consumed the airwaves, and it was immediately apparent why he had asked for the private meeting with me alone – he thought that he could intimidate and control me away from my lawyers. It wasn’t about us reaching an agreement – it was about him dominating me and it had begun with his handshake. I listened to his settlement pitch, and it was no settlement at all. Notwithstanding the arbitrator’s early commentary about the superiority of our position and how we all might think about settlement, his proposal was our full capitulation.

Physical gestures remain a vivid memory

While the words have faded through time, the physical gestures have remained a vivid memory. The prolonged handshake with my hand lost in his. The increasingly hard grip on my hand. The pulling of me close to him to force me to look up at him as he spoke. The demeaning gesture of putting his hand on the top of my shoulder.

I know that extended handshakes occur all the time and often it is a sign of respect or affection to have prolonged contact. I know that it is also a warm and generous gesture to touch another’s elbow while shaking hands – politicians do it all the time. But these gestures were different with me, and I could tell the difference. It was an alpha-male demonstration that I would not acknowledge or yield to. This private discussion got us nowhere. We were both entrenched, and with no movement on his side, there was no movement on ours either. We interpreted this attempt to intimidate as a sign of their perception of the strength of their position, almost a last-ditch effort to get us to capitulate.

If you are in a senior role in a company today, you should expect to have more exposure to the legal world rather than less. But legal matters are just that – legal. They are not personal, and they generally play out over a period of time through some well-established processes. In this case, the attempted physical intimidation was an interesting twist that I have neither seen before nor since – an interesting but ineffective tactic.


The matter moved through its various stages, and we ended up in court. The good thing was that we won, and there were cold, hard dollars on the table paid to us.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.