In connection with another blog post, I downloaded an internet version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War translated by the Sonshi Group. In reading through it, I could not help but notice that many of its points relating to “war”, apply with equal force to negotiation, mediation and resolving disputes.

For example, in Chapter One: Calculations, points 18 and 19 state:

[01.18] Before doing battle, one calculates in the temple and will win, because many calculations were made; before doing battle, one calculates in the temple but will lose, because few calculations were made.

[01.19] Many calculations mean victory; few calculations mean no victory; then how much worse when there are no calculations? From this perspective I can clearly predict victory or defeat.

In short, prepare for negotiation / mediation; don’t wing it. Just like the general who does no calculations prior to war, one who wings a negotiation will suffer defeat. The matter will not be resolved, or at least not favorably. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of your case, of the other party’s strengths and weaknesses and map out a strategy to use during a negotiation or mediation.

The next nugget is in Chapter Two: Doing Battle:

[02.08] Therefore, I have heard of military campaigns that were clumsy but swift, but I have never seen military campaigns that were skilled but protracted. No nation has ever benefited from protracted warfare.

Go to negotiation / mediation as early in the litigation or dispute process as possible. No one wins from the dispute being protracted. The longer the dispute lasts, the more entrenched parties become in their version of the “truth” and the more time, energy and money they will continue to sink into the dispute under the guise of “sunk costs” even though it clearly becomes a loser.

Chapter Three: Planning Attacks applies to the very skilled negotiator:

[03.08] Therefore, one who is skilled in warfare principles subdues the enemy without doing battle, takes the enemy’s walled city without attacking, and overthrows the enemy quickly, without protracted warfare.

[03.23] Therefore I say: One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles.

[03.24] One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes win, sometimes lose. One who does not know the enemy and does not know himself will be in danger in every battle.

To negotiate well, one has to know herself – her own strengths, weaknesses, trigger points, BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) etc. Only then, can she negotiate well with others. This point is the essence of William Ury’s recent book Getting to Yes with Yourself (Harper Collins, New York 2015) written more than 2500 years after Sun Tzu proposed the idea.

Chapter 7 entitled Armed Struggle contains the principle behind the ‘Golden Bridge’ often mentioned in negotiation:

[07.26] Do not thwart an enemy retreating home. If you surround the enemy, leave an outlet; do not press an enemy that is cornered. These are the principles of warfare.

Other call it “saving face”. Allow the other party a graceful way out. Provide the other party with a minor concession so that when she signs the settlement agreement, she does not feel like she has completely capitulated.

Chapter 8 entitled Nine Changes is interesting because it speaks both of preparation (once again) and of personality traits that can lead to failure in war (and thus failure in negotiating a good resolution to a dispute). They speak for themselves so that the analogy to what constitutes a “good” negotiator is easy to discern:

[08.07] Therefore, the intelligent general contemplates both the advantages and disadvantages.

[08.08] Contemplating the advantages, he fulfills his calculations; contemplating the disadvantages, he removes his difficulties.


[08.11] Therefore, there are five dangerous traits of a general: He who is reckless can be killed.

[08.12] He who is cowardly can be captured.

[08.13] He who is quick tempered can be insulted.

[08.14] He who is moral can be shamed.

[08.15] He who is fond of the people can be worried.

[08.16] These five traits are faults in a general, and are disastrous in warfare. The army’s destruction, and the death of the general are due to these five dangerous traits. They must be examined.

Additional strategy or personality traits are mentioned in the next Chapter- 9 entitled Army Maneuvers. Once again, preparation is emphasized.   Again, the analogy of strategy in war to success in negotiations is easily discernible:

[09.20] If he speaks humbly, but increases warfare readiness, he will advance. 

[09.21] If he speaks belligerently and advances aggressively, he will retreat. 

[09.22] If he speaks apologetically, he needs a rest.

Beware of the aggressive negotiator; one who plays a zero sum game or take it- or leave it strategy. She may well be bluffing. But, also beware of the quiet matter of fact negotiator; she well may not be bluffing but quite serious in her demands. In short, actions ( and emotions) speak louder than words. Pay attention to the actions and emotions of the other party, not to her words.

[09.23] If his light chariots move first and take position on the flanks, he is setting up for battle. If he seeks peace without a treaty, he is calculating.

[09.24] If he sets up his troops rapidly, he is expecting reinforcements. 

[09.25] If half of his troops advances and half of his troops retreats, he is trying to lure you. 

…  [09.27] If he sees advantage but does not take it, he is tired. 

… [09.32] If the officers are irritable, they are exhausted.

This point is simply about low blood sugar: it is difficult to negotiate when one’s blood sugar is low. That is why many mediators provide goodies or encourage the parties to eat lunch and other snacks during the day; low blood sugar leads to grumpy people, and grumpy people do not make good decisions!       

[09.38] If he comes with offerings, he wants to rest.        

[09.39] If his troops confront you with anger, but do not do battle or leave their position, he must be investigated.        

[09.40] In warfare, numbers may not necessarily be an advantage; do not advance aggressively.     

[09.41] It is enough to consolidate your strength, calculate the enemy, and get support from your men. 

[09.42] One who lacks strategic planning and underestimates the enemy will be captured. 

Once again; preparation for the negotiation is a must.

Again, in Chapter 10 entitled Ground Formation, preparation through calculating all of the various consequences or possible outcomes is again highlighted:

[10.15] Formations of the ground assist the army. To calculate the enemy, create conditions leading to victory, calculating the dangers and distances. They are the Ways of the superior general.

Simply stated: look at the situation from all perspectives; not just your own.

And finally, Chapter 11 entitled Nine Grounds, mentions two key points for any negotiation: never leave a party without any way out. If a party feels cornered, or that there is nothing to lose by going forward rather than settling, they will continue to fight:

[11.25] When the troops are in desperate situations, they fear nothing; having penetrated deep in enemy ground, they are united. 

[11.26] When there are no other alternatives, they will fight.

While this translation contains additional chapters, hopefully, the quoted portions provide enough of a glimpse to see how similar negotiation is to war. The difference though is that successful negotiations hopefully end without bloodshed and loss of life. A successful war on the other hand….

…. Just something to think about.


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