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12 Negotiation Lessons from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War 

I recently read the classic military strategy book, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written around 500 B.C. in China. Not only was it fascinating, but I was struck by the number of negotiation lessons in it.

Here are my main takeaways, with my analysis in italics. (I am not suggesting, of course, that negotiations are the same as war. But there are similarities).

Lesson 1

“Those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.
Li Ch’uan: They conquer by strategy.” 

Strategic thinking and moves provide the true key to success in war and negotiations.   

Lesson 2

“Know the enemy and know yourself.”

Stepping into your counterpart’s shoes and understanding their interests and needs is crucial. So is intelligence gathering into the strategies and tactics your counterpart has previously used.

Be introspective and brutally honest about your own strengths and weaknesses, too.

Lesson 3

“He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.”

Set your goals, align your team’s interests, and keep your side on the same page and not at cross purposes.

Lesson 4

“When he is united, divide him.”

Divide and conquer works as well in negotiations with multiple counterpart team members as it does in war. Defend against this, too.

Lesson 5

“Keep him under a strain and wear him down.”

Patience and perseverance in negotiations almost always pay off.

Lesson 6

“During the early morning spirits are keen, during the day they flag, and in the evening thoughts turn toward home.” And “those skilled in war avoid the enemy when his spirit is keen and attack him when it is sluggish and his soldiers homesick.”

Parties often make significant concessions late at night or after protracted bargaining sessions because they are just tired and want to go home.

Lesson 7

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.”

Timing plays a crucial role in negotiations – so strike while your leverage is strong and wait and strengthen it when it is weak.

Lesson 8

“Generally, he who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease; he who comes later to the scene and rushes into the fight is weary.”

This is best explained with my 5th Golden Rule: Control the Agenda. Learn more about this by watching this video or reading this blog post.

Lesson 9

“Determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not.”

Getting into your counterpart’s mind and ascertaining their strategy and moves will increase your likelihood of accomplishing your goals.

Lesson 10

“Probe him and learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient.”

Ask questions. Deeply and actively listen. Explore your counterpart’s interests. Make offers and/or concessions and evaluate your counterpart’s responses.

Lesson 11

“Anger his general and confuse him. . . . “

Chang Yu: “If the enemy general is obstinate and prone to anger, insult and enrage him so that he will be irritated and confused, and without a plan will recklessly advance against you.”

Effective negotiating requires strategic planning and execution. If your counterpart loses sight of this by getting irritated, confused, angry or reckless, you will be much more likely to achieve your objectives.

Lesson 12

“Weigh the situation and then move.”

Plan and evaluate the negotiation environment first. Then decide if, when, and how to make your moves.

Latz’s Lesson: Strategy and planning lie at the heart of the Art of War and the Art of Negotiation.

 Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or

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