Can you blame the hammer for bending the nail?
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It’s not just that we want to have influence in our lives, we need it too. We need it when we need others to reach our goal. But how do you use influence? For this, I sometimes use the metaphor of the hammer and the nail. How hard do you have to hit the nail with the hammer for the nail to be effective and penetrate the wood? If you strike too softly, it will not go through the wood. If you hit too hard and at the wrong angle, you will bend the nail.

But is the hammer to blame when it bends the nail? No of course not. It is the user of the hammer and the influence he exerts with the hammer that determines whether the nail does its job well. A trained carpenter knows exactly how to use his hammer!

Using influence with care
If we use this metaphor to also look at our behavior when influencing other people, it is clear that we are more effective when we use our influence wisely, with care and mindful consideration. When we compare this to hitting the hammer too softly or too hard, we also can compare this to saying too little or nothing or getting angry and slamming the doors in human relationships. It is clear that both actions have an influence, but are not very effective when it comes to achieving cooperation. Yes, you sometimes can get your way when you get angry, but eventually, people will turn against you. Fortunately, if you have said too little, the situation can still be amended. This is much harder to do when you have said too much.

Collaboration between people
Cooperation. That is of course exactly what is lacking and why people ask a mediator’s assistance. They do not realize how they frustrate the communication between them and as a result get stuck. Sometimes they are too forceful in what they say and do and hit with the hammer too hard. Sometimes they are afraid to spell out what is really going on because they are afraid it will only make things worse. It is the same as not using the hammer or hitting the nail too softly. In the end, it is all about effectiveness in communication. That means hitting harder or softer for the right effect.

And of course, it’s not just about hearing each other. The real question is if they understand each other? Of course, no real cooperation is achieved when the other person does not feel committed but simply does what is demanded. You are not cooperating when you feel compelled and think you have no choice. People who feel compelled usually do not do more than they have to do or was demanded. In those cases, the nail will not go deep enough to have the desired effect. The desired effect is also not achieved when the other person resents the situation and actively resists. The effect can be compared to the nail becoming bent but not going into the wood. Coming back to human interaction, how you effectively deal with differences and disputes is determined by how you use your influence to achieve cooperation.

Involuntary responses
It all sounds so logical, don’t you think? When you think of the hammer and the nail, you know not to hit too hard or soft. Don’t you? It seems self-evident. Yet, we do not see this reflected in our behavior when it comes to conflicts between people. We usually have an involuntary fight, flee or freeze response to a situation to protect us from threat or danger. These survival mechanisms helped us get to where we are today. But are these automatic reactions also effective when we want to use our influence and need cooperation? No, and I think that’s why the mediator can play an important role here. The mediator can defuse the situation, make these involuntary responses and their effects visible so that they can become normalized as part of the conversation, and break the circle of attack and defend.

Defensive Strategies
The offense is the best defense! Yes, people do say that, but does it help to make you friends? It’s not the first thing I think of when I need cooperation. But how to behave differently? How do I break the automatism of my defensive strategies? What happens between the people in a mediation can also happen to me as a mediator. I too can be startled by the behavior and statements of parties and have an automatic and involuntary response to stay in control. Becoming aware of the involuntary reactions of others and myself is the first step to learn to deal with them better and to break the vicious circle of attack and defend.

Forms of Defensive Behavior

For example, when you are:

  1. denying that something is wrong;
  2. shifting responsibility for the situation or your reaction to others;
  3. using perspective-taking to make the situation less threatening;
  4. creating distance in the conversation by talking about “we” instead of me and you;
  5. changing the subject, elaborating on other aspects or irrelevant details;
  6. avoiding confrontation and not naming what is going on so that the other person does not become defensive;
  7. using humor, make a joke to defuse the threat or make the inconvenience disappear.

To discuss the unspeakable
To break the vicious circle of defensive strategies requires an open conversation in which I fully express what is happening. I need to break through my fears, taboos and speak the unspeakable. For example: “I notice I feel tense when we disagree and you raise your voice in the process. I then want to take control of the situation because I’m afraid things will get out of hand. It seems to me that you then tone down the conversation and become silent to comply with my wishes, but that the conversation stalls while it is clear we need to have a conversation with each other. I am afraid this makes us less effective in finding a mutually satisfying and sustainable solution. How do you experience our conversation?’

Scary honesty
The point is that I – without criticizing anyone – name the behaviors that keep us both captive. I need to speak the unspeakable to have an open conversation. It is only then that I break through the vicious circle of defensive reactions behind which we hide. When I do so, I name the effect the behaviors have on me and the positive intentions that I have: talking to each other to achieve cooperation. I call this scary honesty because it requires I show vulnerability and may be afraid of a defensive response from the other person. Since naming what is going on is scary, this likely stimulates a defensive reaction in the other person. My hesitancy to speak out is understandable because I don’t want to make the situation worse. This makes it clear I need to be aware of any involuntary response in myself and be determined to persist patiently and empathically to create an open conversation and invite the other person to join me. This works best when I refrain from any form of criticism (that is why I speak about myself in the first person singular about my experience) and show that I am interested in the experience of others. That is why I also finish what I said with the question: ‘How do you experience our conversation?’

An open conversation
An open conversation is stimulated by showing that I am curious about other people’s experiences and want to explore what we can achieve together. As a mediator, I take the lead in this and stimulate people’s trust by making them more curious and support their perspective-taking. Once I understand that defensive strategies are not bad, but are meant to protect us it is easier to help people overcome them. People use them to save themselves from pain, shame, and humiliation. So, people feel supported when I approach the defensive behavior of parties by making explicit how they feel and mention the positive intentions I imagine they have. The downside of defensive strategies is that they prevent us from learning from and with each other because it keeps us from talking about what really matters. As a mediator, I would mention this as well to motivate people to get over their fears. Getting used to an open conversation means some discomfort at first, and you need to have these conversations more often until this too feels normal. The inconvenience in a mediation is unavoidable. People already feel that way anyway. It seems to me that it is better to make use of the inconvenience people feel to help them express it and make it part of the conversation rather than letting it get in the way.

Intentionally using influence with care
So there is quite a bit to consider if you want to intentionally use influence with care. However, the nail and hammer metaphor quickly makes the benefits clear. In general, in our anger and frustration, we hit too hard when something doesn’t work out. We might even demand a bigger hammer to get the job done! But how many crooked nails will it take before you decide that hitting too hard is ineffective and you want to try a different approach? This makes me think about the influence I want to have as a mediator? And what do you imagine is the influence you think people in a mediation would like to have on each other? It may take some courage to break the circle, but when you apply this principle of open communication to create collaboration, you will find that you can achieve more! As a mediator, this motivates me to deal with situations differently, openly, and more curiously.

In summary, making things transparent: hitting the nail on the head

  1. Identify and name the defensive strategy by naming the behavior.
  2. Make clear the effect it has on you and what your positive intention is.
  3. Speak in the first person singular ‘I’ to express your experience in this situation.
  4. Be curious about the other person’s experience and focus on what you can achieve together. Ask a Question.
  5. Let others get used to your openness and persist with empathy and patience until you achieve cooperation.


Read more? Also, check out Peter Senge – The Fifth Discipline,

If you want to train and practice these skills, take a look at Nonviolent Communication or, for example, Mediation Skills. If you prefer more personal support, take a look at my offer for coaching and mediation.

Are you having a hard time expressing positive intentions? Participate in a training session or check out the feelings and needs maps that you can download for free. Click here.

Govert van Ginkel

This article is written by Govert van Ginkel. Govert specializes in Nonviolent and Effective Communication and is active in this field as a trainer, speaker, coach, and mediator. More information about Govert can be found here. The current training offer can be found here


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