More than two thousand years ago the Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote a guide to military strategies, translated as The Art of War. Although nowadays the classic text is more commonly referenced as a business and public relations tool, Sun Tzu’s advice on how to persuade people and resolve conflict remains remarkably relevant in combative as well as competitive environments.

In particular, Sun Tzu advised:

1. Know your opposition as well as you know yourself. The fact that we are shocked by the actions of Islamic State terrorists suggests we do not truly know this enemy. More than label them irrational, immoral sociopaths, we need to better understand how they think and why they act the way they do.

By comparison — granted on a significantly less consequential level — smart businesses use historical data, opinion polling, impartial authoritative input and other forms of intelligence gathering to develop the most thorough psycho-demographic understanding of their target audiences prior to engaging them.

2. Rely on the art of misdirection. Warfare is based on deception, the ability to conceal one’s position. “When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Public relations professionals use misdirection, too; by employing creative, unanticipated tactics to break through all the clutter competing for the public’s time and interest. Edward L. Bernays, considered to be the father of modern public relations, called this “the engineering of consent.” In a classic example, a publishing client tasked Bernays with increasing book sales. The obvious approach would have been to promote the publisher’s extensive catalog. Bernays accomplished the task, however, with a clever approach that was decidedly indirect: he persuaded new home builders to feature built-in bookshelves.

3. In victory, leave your opposition with some dignity. The rhetoric aimed at Middle East enemies and Islamic State terrorists is almost always absolute: destroy, annihilate, “bomb the hell out of.” Unfortunately, the United States learned the hard way in Iraq and elsewhere that “defeated” militants are resilient and, if humiliated and unappeased, will resist, rebuild and continue to wreak havoc.

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact” and for the sake of future co-existence, “Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

On the surface, such a merciful conclusion to victory may seem incongruous, even abhorrent. Yet in business and war, the ultimate goal should be to establish lasting relationships, even when based on the least common of denominators.

Originally published at on January 26, 2016.

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