Are there ways to prepare for and deal with conflict that will allow you to maximize your chances for positive outcomes? In both business and personal interactions, we often enjoy finding collaborative and cooperative resolutions to disputes. Nonetheless, conflict is inevitable. How do you respond in tense moments? Do you find yourself overcome with anger, emotion, and anxiety? Does your judgment cloud and your decision-making suffer? Why are some people able to stay grounded, maintain a clear, calm view, and make good decisions in the midst of the most chaotic disputes?
Musashi Miyamoto explores this fundamental challenge in The Book of Five Rings. Musashi was an expert Japanese swordsman and ronin who lived from 1584 to 1645. After developing an unparalleled skill in swordsmanship and winning 60 duels, he developed the Niten-ryu school of swordsmanship and authored The Book of Five Rings. On its face, the book is a technical manual of swordsmanship, but read more broadly, it is a masterful piece on strategy, tactics, and philosophy that is relevant today.
Musashi believes that victory in conflict is dependent upon the ability to perceive the entire adversarial situation from multiple perspectives. By observing clearly the situation from your own point of view, your opponent’s point of view, and a neutral point of view, you place yourself in the best position to act with clear intent and with good judgment.
According to Musashi, success in battle begins with your own ability to maintain clear vision and perspective in difficult times. Clear vision will allow you to clearly view your position, your opponent’s position, and where relative advantages may lie on your battlefield. Musashi instructs:
Where you hold your sword depends on your relationship to the opponent, depends on the place, and must conform to the situation; wherever you hold it, the idea is to hold it so that it will be easy to kill the opponent.
Understanding your best position of advantage requires not only knowledge of your own potential attack, but also the place and the position of your opponent. Musashi advises us to conceive of our attack in relation to the condition of the environment around us: “Position yourself with the sun at your back.” In other words, advance your argument or your negotiating position only after you understand the external factors that may impact the correctness or effectiveness of that position is unwise. This is sometimes easier said than done:
“Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger; the perceiving eye is weaker. A specialty of martial arts is to see that which is far away closely and to see that which is nearby from a distance.”
Musashi’s lesson is that in every moment, we have blind spots. In a dispute, we take positions and make arguments. We believe that those positions and arguments are based on facts. If our opponent disagrees, we conclude that it is because he or she has misunderstood the facts. This may or may not be true; we cannot truly understand the strength of our position and the best path for attack unless we challenge ourselves to view our own perspective from afar and the distant perspective from up close.
“Become the opponent.”
Good strategic decisions during conflict require an understanding not only of the strengths and weaknesses of your own position, but of your opponent’s position as well. Musashi advises, “The way to win in a battle…is to know the rhythms of the specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect.” He continues to counsel, “Whenever opponents try to attack you, let them go ahead and do anything that is useless, while preventing them from doing anything useful.” This is intuitive – to attack in ways that your opponent may not expect, and encourage your opponent to waste energy on fruitless efforts. It will be impossible, however, to truly understand to succeed in that effort, until you fully understand your opponent’s position. That takes study.
Shane Parrish, at Farnam Street, wrote a truly excellent piece called “The Work Required to Have an Opinion.” In his piece, Parrish quotes Charlie Munger as saying, “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” Munger’s comment echoes Musashi’s points on tactics. You cannot have confidence in your position until you know its strengths and weaknesses. This requires you to do the work to question your own position, to attack it, to test it, and to scrutinize it, just as your opponent will. By doing this work, you will develop an understanding of the perspective of your opponent. You will learn what your opponent likely believes his or her strengths to be, and what your opponent’s goals are. From that effort, your own position and plan of strategy will become more clear.
Musashi provides nine specific suggestions for developing this complete strategic perspective:
- Think of what is right and true (i.e., check your assumptions).
- Practice and cultivate these methods (i.e., train).
- Become acquainted with the arts (i.e., learn a wide variety of techniques).
- Know the principles of all professions. (i.e., cross-disciplinary learning)
- Understand the harm and benefit in everything (i.e., cost-benefit analysis).
- Learn to see everything accurately.
- Become aware of what is not obvious (i.e., refine your techniques).
- Be careful even in small matters (i.e., details matter).
- Do not do anything useless.
The ultimate goal, according to Musashi, is to develop an unbiased mental framework, based on practice and repetition, that will allow you to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of all arguments at play in a dispute:
In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal … let there be no change at all – with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so that there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relation for even an instant.
This flexible framework and detached perspective will allow you the best strategic opportunity to reach your goals, with a robust tactical toolbox. Perhaps more than any other risk in conflict, Musashi warns of the dangers of inflexibility: “Fixation is the way to death, fluidity is the way to life.”