If you are like me, you often forget one crucial fact: that the entire universe, with one stunning exception, is composed of other people.
What a concept.
And so.. before it’s the other side of noon, you have probably engaged in battle – outright or in your head– with your partner, your co-worker, a friend, or someone on your commute to work.
It’s really hard that we have to share this planet with others. But we do. And since 99% of the battles we engage in are probably useless, how great would it be if we could save that energy and time for more constructive, life-giving endeavors?
Sun Tsu, the ancient Chinese war strategist wrote some great stuff about waging war; his books are popular business school fodder. The parallels between his military situations in “The Art of War” and the types of daily life battles we wage constantly with friends, frenemies, family members, partners, bosses and co-workers are interesting.
Since good conflict resolution skills are helpful in the workplace, marketplace, and at home, here are five rules from Sun Tsu’s military strategy adopted for our modern day battles:
1. The first rule of course is not to fight.
Control your inner turmoil so you don’t fight unnecessary wars. If you are not in danger, do not fight a battle. Don’t launch a war simply out of anger or resentment, or because you are right. Take action if it is to your advantage only. This is difficult, because we get hurt/upset - and often rightly so - by things people say. The issue is that people around you will say outrageous things all the time- untrue things, un-researched claims, ridiculous opinions (yes, opinions can be ridiculous) - and it'll takes a colossal amount of time to course correct all of them. The alternative is to suck it up - find a way to deal with the inner turmoil - but let the people say what they want, do what they want, and think what they want. as long as there is no direct impact on your life. Remember that their ineptitude is a much bigger liability to their life than to yours. Their liability impacts you only at this tiny point of contact; it impacts them every minute of every day.
2. Don’t engage people or situations in battle unless you know that you are going to win.
Unless there is a clear victory, there is ZERO point in fighting. It doesn’t matter if you are right, or if your action is 100% justified, or if the whole world agrees with you and is on your side. For example you get an email that you find objectionable (because it is insensitive, condescending, unfair, <insert reason>). You are about to write a sharp retort. Read the email again- is there a defined action or response required from you? If not, then ask yourself- what do I hope to gain from responding to this? Unless you can answer that question, and you are happy with the answer (and the risk you are taking, because chances you won't get what you want) don’t engage! Otherwise, by the very act of responding, you lose the battle. You are effectively engaging in something that likely as has no positive outcome for you at the end of the day, and paying the hefty price of hours wasted that you will not get back.
3. Don’t attack walled cities.
A large employer, for example, is a walled city. You may have a bad boss or an unfair work situation and you may be tempted to fight it. However, unless you are guaranteed some major changes, (which would be rare) drop it. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the best strategy here. Try to think of one or two actions that will pacify your enemy and keep them at bay. Be deliberately non-threatening and let your enemies underestimate you. Lie low and keep your cards close to your chest. If you come across any weapons – i.e. the ability to execute on a threat – send a clear message to your opponent of the ability as well as the intention, but remember the goal is still to win without fighting.
4. If you really must fight, then move rapidly.
What is valued in war is a quick and decisive victory, not prolonged operations. If you have a conflict with someone that you cannot ignore and you are in a position with some power to take a specific action – file a complaint, end a business relationship –do it quickly, cleanly, and move on as rapidly as you can. When you have an issue with someone, it is not their problem. It is your problem. So fix that - i.e. stop the engagement on your end; don’t berate and harass them. Leave them to their life.
5. Build a strong position.
Weak positioning will catch up with you; false positioning will destroy you. Learn your subject well enough to teach it. Know your enemy, your environment, your terrain, and your destination thoroughly and in detail.
Now all that may sound a little drastic - and the Sun Tsu mindset is certainly aggressive. But let's just take this as a rule of thumb- the less active enemies you have in life, the better. It's just not worth it. This is why people who fly under the radar, who try to be agreeable and kind and just get on with it, are so successful. So try to swallow your pride and convert would-be detractors to supporters and fans. Make friends. Help people.
And remember always: no matter how strong you are, even offensive strategy should be aimed at winning without major conflict. Those who actually fight real wars understand that even when they are on the winning side, it is still of paramount importance to minimize the conflict – i.e. not fight unless you really have to, and when fighting to make it quick, and not prolong war. Why? Because fighting consumes unparalleled energy, time, and resources. Are you willing to spend X amount of time and capital on this battle, which then means you cannot spend it on Y?
There is a massive opportunity cost to every single battle – little and large – that you decide to engage in. Think before you raise the sword.