One of the joys of travel is the experience of how different cultures communicate. Head to Japan and you’ll be bowing instead of shaking hands. Off to Qatar? You’ll be bumping noses. Enjoying a Parisian spring? You’ll air kiss on both cheeks. Exploring the hobbit holes of New Zealand? You’ll touch foreheads. You get the idea.
What remains the same from country to country is the power of the non-verbals: microexpressions, macro-expressions, and body language.
Not only that, but despite cultural variance, the commonalities when it comes to thought, mindset, strategy, and tactics in negotiation are surprisingly numerous.
This is part of the reason why I love reading and learning what the ancient texts have to teach about modern day negotiation [Subscribe to stay tuned for an upcoming series on the Art of War by Lao Tzu].
This week, I’m passing along the culturally transferrable wisdom of The 36 Stratagems, an ancient Chinese text I first became familiar with thanks to Chin-Ning Chu, author of The Asian Mind Game, The Art of War for Women, and Do Less Achieve More, among others. If you haven’t explored her work, I can’t recommend it more highly — it’s helped me succeed in countless negotiations with both Chinese and US companies.
What follows in this post is a brief history of the 36 Stratagems along with a list of each and a modern day corollary.
Before we get into the main points of this post, I want to first make something explicitly clear, given the current climate of xenophobia and racism in the United States: I provide this information as an honor and tribute to Chinese culture. My intention is to provide historically and culturally accurate information. If I’ve made a mis-step in any of my translations and re-applications to modern life (from business to politics to diplomacy) PLEASE do not hesitate to reach out and let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can rectify and correct the issue(s)!
It shouldn’t need to be said, but in case there’s any doubt, Negotiation Strategist Research, The Persuasion Lab, all affiliated publications, and team members condemn xenophobia, racism, and violence against all people, including those of Chinese and Asian descent.
Now let’s get into some history!
While the 36 Stratagems are sometimes attributed to Sun Tzu or Zhuge Liange, they are more likely a blend of ancient oral and written tradition. In fact, no one knows what the original 36 Stratagems were, and the number 36 — as the square of 6 — is intended as a metaphor for ‘many strategies.’ This is similar to the notion of ‘the 10,000 things’ which refers to an infinite multitude. It does seem likely, however, that the 36 Stratagems were heavily influenced by The Art of War from Sun Tzu.
In 1941 the ancient text, transcribed in the Shaanxi province, was published. Twenty years later, in 1961, the information came to broader global awareness, when a review was published in the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, the Guangming Daily.
According to scholars, these strategies are part of the collective unconscious of the Chinese culture, simply because of how long they’ve been around. It’s thought that some of the information of the 36 Stratagems was part of the Book of Qi, dating to 500AD.
Some things to keep in mind with a modern reading: This is a Warrior Class text that was developed through the winning and losing of life and war. Accordingly, there’s no win/win in the 36 Stratagems. Some of the tactics are particularly harsh, and almost all of them involve the use of frank deception in one form or another. Therefore, many may be considered unethical for use in business by today’s standards.
Nevertheless, there’s a clear benefit in being able to identify when one of these tactics is being used against you so that you can mount an appropriate response. Of course, we never advocate unethical negotiation practices — do maintain ethical standards of practice when it comes to your negotiations!
When You’re Winning
#1. Cross the sea by deceiving the sky
We tend to ignore things that are routine and familiar — use this to your advantage by lulling your opponent into a sense of complacency by developing habits or routines that conceal your true intentions. Leaking fake information is another way of interpreting this stratagem.
#2. Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
Steeped in the military history of China, this refers to indirectly attacking the achilles heel of your opponent. This is seen in modern life through advertisements linking romance to chewing gum or a clean, peaceful home to a laundry detergent. Perhaps persuade someone who has the ear of the decision maker, or divide and conquer your opponent.
#3. Kill with a borrowed knife
Use borrowed resources of another to bolster your own. Said another way via Lao Tzu, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
#4. Wait leisurely for the exhausted enemy
Muhammad Ali’s ‘rope-a-dope’ technique is a perfect example of waiting for the enemy to exhaust themselves before striking. In modern negotiations, you might see folks burn time on a meaningless aspect of a deal and then focus on what matters at the end, when nerves/energy is run down.
#5. Loot a burning house
Get them when they’re down! Use the chaos or difficulty of your opponent to cover your attack. If a valuable company is overrun by infighting of executives, this is the perfect moment to move in for a takeover.
#6. Make a feint in the east, while attacking the west
Distract your opponent, then attack a spot they’ve left undefended. Focus and emphasize something of little value as a distraction while downplaying something else that’s a major objective.
#7. Create something out of nothing
Make yourself look either bigger or smaller than you are, or more or less valuable/effective. A great example is acting as if you are or aren’t the final decision maker to draw more out of your opponent.
Another more collaborative interpretation is to get innovative! Adapt! Get out of linear thought pattern — the Getting to Yes brainstorming exercise is a great way to figure out what might be possible.
#8. Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the Passage of Chencang
Another stratagem steeped in Chinese military history, this means feint a long approach, but instead sneak in swiftly. Magicians use this strategy with sleight of hand. A modern application is the exploitation of ‘inattention blindness’ where you are literally blind to factors you have not been attending to. For some examples, look at this video, and then check out this one for a more in-depth explanation.
#9. Watch the fire burning from across the river
Allow your competitors to fight your enemy while you rest and observe. Only when your opponents are exhausted by their fighting should you move in with your strategic move.
#10. Conceal a dagger in a smile
Keep your enemies close/be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Lure your opponent into a sense of security by making them think you’re a friend or close confidant before striking. Listen to this episode on fraud and embezzlement for some modern day examples.
#11. Sacrifice the plum tree to save the peach tree
Take a small loss for a large gain — while you may want to avoid concessions in your negotiation, include a few concessions you can make as a strategic play for your desired outcome.
#12. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat
Seize an opportunity when it presents itself! Even if it seems like a small opportunity, these little wins add up over time. Never let an opening pass you by.
#13. Beat the grass to startle the snake
Do something unaimed but spectacular and distracting to shift the focus of your opponent. Stir things up and make a lot of noise about something that doesn’t really matter, or which doesn’t have a big impact.You might protest a minor contract clause to distract from other changes you’re making that are far more important.
#14. Borrow a corpse to return the soul
Revive a dead proposal by presenting it again in a new way. Return to a previously dismissed solution if no other acceptable solutions present themselves. Additionally, you might consider what’s lying in the discard pile of your opponent and see if there’s anything worth reviving.
#15. Lure the tiger out of the mountain
Get your opponent to relinquish the high ground and home-court advantage. Seek a neutral location for your dealings.
#16. Let the adversary free in order to snare him.
This was part of the focus of our podcast episode with Michael Reddington, Certified Forensic Interviewer (listen here, or read more about that here). The more you can facilitate freedom when you’re not making progress, the more likely people are to return to the table and/or share information of their own accord.
#17. Toss out a brick to attract a piece of jade
There are two interpretations of this stratagem. One relates to the concept of reciprocity (which you can learn more about here, or read more about), wherein if you give something of minor value, the response will be of much larger value. Another interpretation relates to convincing your opponent that what you have is of greater or lesser value than it is, to encourage them to let down their guard and reveal the coveted piece of ‘jade’ you’re really after.
#18. To catch bandits, first catch their ringleader
Capture or persuade the person in charge, and the rest of the team or organization will follow.
When You’re Losing
For Confused Situations
#19. Remove the fire from under the cauldron
If something must be destroyed, destroy the source first. A prime modern example is dealing with difficult emotions during a negotiation. Get to the root of the issue, the driving fear by asking open ended questions and labeling the emotions you’re noticing from the other person. A great place to practice is with your spouse or teenager!
#20. Muddy the water to catch the fish
Create confusion as a cover to achieve your goals. This is very similar to stratagem #13. As you create a distraction, take advantage of the disarray to make your move.
#21. The cicada sheds its golden shell
If you’re in the mid-atlantic region of the United States, you’ll experience this literal reality first hand with the 17-year cicadas! This is akin to ‘ghosting’ or simply retreating while leaving something else behind. A cinematic example is the end of The Sound Of Music, while the family sings at the Salzburg music festival, one child leaving after the other during the song “So Long, Farewell.”
#22. Lock the door to catch the thief
This stratagem is all about planning. Consider all the possible moves and results before you decide on one. Will you simply leave no escape? Actively corner your opponent? Which side of the door do you want to end up on?
#23. Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighboring state
Strategic partnerships and sharing resources will give you the upper hand. Build alliances with those who have what you want or need to secure your goals.
#24. Borrow a safe passage to conquer the kingdom
This is seen commonly in the tech space, as companies join forces to go against a common enemy. Very much like #23, use the resources of an ally to attack an enemy.
#25. Steal the dragon and replace with a phoenix -or- Replace beans with rotten timbers
Sabotage your opponent by removing their strengths and/or supports that allow them to flourish and/or defend themselves. Act in ways that undermine their strengths to gain level ground.
#26. Point at the mulberry tree, but curse the locust tree
Convey your opinions or intentions indirectly. This is Diplomacy 101: tread gently, and accentuate mutual benefit. Another interpretation of this is to play the fool as a form of misdirection.
#27. Feint madness but keep your balance. Pretend to be a pig in order to eat the tiger
Play dumb so that people underestimate you. This will provide the cover for your attack at the opportune moment. It also behooves you to not underestimate someone else as a defense to this tactic. A (somewhat) modern popular culture example may be seen in the show Columbo, a detective who plays dumb to gather information.
#28. Remove the ladder after your ascent/cross the river and destroy the bridge
Lead your opponent into a trap and then cut them off. This is the darling of every good trial attorney — get someone to say something against their interest, and close in on it. This is also seen in negotiations when the goalpost continues to be moved, which demands higher outputs and puts the opponent in an imbalanced position.
#29. Decorate the tree with fake blossoms
Make things look better than they are. If you’ve ever visited a college, you’ll know the food tends to be far better for planned visit days than the rest of the year. In other words, reframe something deceitfully and expand available options with things of little value.
#30. Turn yourself into a host from being a guest
Start in what looks like a defensive stance, and then move into offense. Hecklers of comedians and public speakers are prime examples of turning from guest to host.
For Desperate Situations
#31. Use beauty to ensnare a man
The classic and admittedly misogynistic honey-pot strategy. In modern dealings, you may take this to mean using fancy but superficial details to provide distraction from things that matter.
#32. Open the gate of an undefended city
The empty city or empty fort strategy. In other words, openly display a weakness for correction. You could take this as a beta test or the tactic of calling out objections and negative aspects to neutralize them.
#33. Use adversary spies to sow discord
Spread disinformation and counterintelligence, especially through informal channels. The current use of media and social media today on all sides is a prime example.
#34. Self torture can yield progress
Pretend to be injured or damaged in order to lull the other side into a false sense of security, or to gain sympathy and even needed resources. When the opponent’s defenses are lowered, undermine from within.
#35. Lead your adversary to chain together their warships -or- Chain stratagems
This is considered the ‘Stratagem of stratagems’ — just one stratagem isn’t going to cut it. You must use multiple, interlocking strategies to ensure success and ensnare your opponent.
#36. If all else fails, retreat
Of course, despite all your best efforts, success is unreachable. In this case, fall back on your best alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA) and put the deal on hold to live to close another day.