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The Art of War and the Art of Negotiation as taught by Sun Tzu

Angel Tse and Gregory E. Kesten, The InterNeg Group, Ottawa, 1997


The Art of War (Ping Fa) was written by Sun Tzu around 400 BC in China, during a period known as the Age of the Warring States. Since that time, his text has been translated into various languages such as Japanese, French, English, Russian, and Spanish. Sun Tzu's text was written as 13 short chapters or topics, and it consists of less than 6,000 words. Each chapter deals with a specific step in overcoming obstacles, from the analysis of the enemy to the attack to defence to posturing.

The text is short; one can read it in few hours. Almost each sentence, however, is representative of Sun Tzu long deliberations and deep knowledge. Deliberation about his ideas may thus take many days.

Most of what is known about Sun Tzu is derived from the brief biography contained in the work of Ssu-ma Chi'en, the historian of the Han dynasty. Ssu-ma Chi'en claims that Sun was born in Ch'i, modern Shantung. Sun Tzu's name was actually Sun Wu, which is the Chinese word for warrior or military. According to Ssu-ma Chi'en, Sun Tzu was a general in the army of Wu (514-496 BC), a small state at the mouth of the Yangtze River (Giles, 1999).

The Art of War became a classic work on strategy for centuries. It has been taught in military academies and business schools. It has been used by military as well as industry leaders. In China, the first Emperor Qin Shihuang studied The Art of War. Adhering to Sun Tzu's principles, Qin Shihuang united China for the first time around 200 BC (Guisso et al., 1989). Twenty-one centuries later, Mao Zedong used Sun Tzu's writings to defeat Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in 1949 (McNeilly, 1996). In the West, it has been said that Napoleon entered many of his military campaigns with the first European edition of The Art of War at his side.

More recently, a film director Oliver Stone quoted extensively from The Art of War in his film "Wall Street" (Discovery Communications, 1999). In the business context, the work of Sun Tzu is usually applied to the area of strategic management. However, the way Sun Tzu describes planning, preparation and evaluation of the opponents can also be applied to negotiation. The purpose of this paper is to capture some of the concepts and ideas in The Art of War into principles that can be applied in planning for negotiations.

The Art of War and Negotiation

Clearly war is the ultimate, and most often the worst, approach to conflict resolution. It should be avoided if at all possible, but this is not the point here. As Sut Tzu shows there are similarities between war and other approaches; peaceful and more desirable ways to resolve conflicts. More importantly however, as he so often says, the war or a battle should be avoided if possible as victory can possibly be achieved by other means. What if both sides can claim victory? What if the antagonists can achieve what they need? And what if afterwards they collaborate and secure peace? Although Sun Tzu did not ask these questions in the country that was torn by many years of war, his writing can help us to seek answers.

Five basic principles

  1. Awareness requires setting aside all preconceptions and observing the elemental "how" of things. Suppositions, opinions, and predilections interfere with understanding this"how". Awareness of it comes with being alert which, in turn, is built on emptying one's mind of prejudice. Awareness is the source of the highest and best impulses in people. It sustains the mediator and inspires others.
  2. Nature embraces the inevitability of differences of opinion and interest, hence the certainty of conflict. Conflict is darkness and light, danger and opportunity, stability and change, strength and weakness, the drive to move forward, the force that restrains it. All conflicts contain the seeds of creation and destruction.
  3. Situation is the confluence of circumstances, remote or impending, intentional or unplanned, easy or difficult. Attention to conditions requires attention to details and observing predicaments. Situations lead to discernment, judgement and choice of particulars.
  4. Leadership is the quiet exercise of intelligence, credibility, courage and sincerity. It is strength tempered with compassion and guidance with a light touch.
  5. Art is the flexibility and freedom of form that has its ground in fundamental mastery of craft. Discipline of habit, and the comfort of knowledge are the basis on which the rules of mediation are bent and shaped to circumstance.

Importance of negotiation

"The smartest strategy in war is the one that allows you to achieve your objectives without having to fight."

Sun Tzu believed that to win a battle by actually fighting is not the most desirable method. Avoiding war and achieving what one needs is clearly superior to a battle. The most desirable form of generalship is to get the enemy to surrender and incorporate the enemy forces into ones own.

To achieve ones own objectives in a conflict situation one has to communicate with the opponent. Communication may take different forms; it may be involve deception, show of force, involve other parties or involve negotiations with the opponent. The goal of such negotiations is to present the opponent with alternatives that are inferior to the opponent's surrender and the terms of surrender that the opponent would accept.

According to Fisher and Ury (1991), one should negotiate if the negotiation holds the promise of achieving an outcome that, all things considered, meets ones interests better than the BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). In many cases, war is actually a move within a negotiation. The violence is intended to change the other side's BATNA, or their perception of it, so that they will more readily agree to ones terms for peace. Therefore, unless one has a better BATNA, one should always use negotiation to resolve conflicts.

Planning and preparation

"The rules of the military are five: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison, and victory. The ground gives rise to measurements, measurements give rise to assessments, assessments give rise to calculations, calculations give rise to comparisons, and comparisons give rise to victories."

It was the belief of Sun Tzu that before one entered into a confrontational situation a complete analysis of the situation was required (Floyd, 1992). This belief is one of the tenets of negotiations stressed by many experts and scholars (Fisher and Ury 1991; Lewicki et al., 1996). The analysis is required no matter which kind of negotiation strategy one is going to use. Planning and preparation are the keys to successful negotiation. In the negotiation context, such analyses should focus on information regarding your position, the other party's position, and the context of the negotiation.

It is so often that we negotiate without attempting to measure our options. Utility is one, and the most well known measures of alternatives. Even in its simple form, however, it is rarely utilized.

"Therefore I say; know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant of both your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril."

Sun Tzu also believed that the outcome of a war depends on the amount of information you have collected. This is also very true in the context of negotiation. Successful negotiation requires not only planning for ones position but also for that of the other party and for the context in which the negotiations will be conducted.

“Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient.”

Knowledge of yourself

In order to know oneself, one should answer the following questions:
"What do I want out of this negotiation?" and
"Why is it important to me?"

To answer the first question, negotiators should define their goals in the negotiation and list them in concrete, measurable terms such as dollar amounts. Then the negotiators should prioritize these goals, in order to eliminate those which are unrelated to the present situation. The next step is to define your bargaining range including your starting level, expected compromise level, and your reservation level.

According to Fisher and Ury (1991), knowing yourself should also include establishing a BATNA. Knowing your BATNA can provide you with power during bargaining because, if the deal under consideration does not work out, you can always switch to your BATNA and still be satisfied.

To answer the second question, one should define the underlying interests in the negotiation. The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side's need, interests, concerns, and fears. Being able to identify your interests is important since behind the opposite positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones (Fisher and Ury, 1991).

"Therefore I have heard of military operations that were clumsy but swift, but I have never seen one that was skillful and lasted a long time. It is never beneficial to a nation to have a military operation continue for a long time."

"Hence what is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations."

Sun Tzu said that when the time is right, act swiftly and decisively. When the victory is long delayed, weapons will grow dull and morale will drop. Do not act precipitously, but do not hesitate when the conditions for victory are present. Delay also has an adverse effect on the productivity of the country. Weakening the country by waging a protracted war may give another adversary an opportunity to attack successfully. This is very true in the context of negotiation, since negotiation is costly to the organization. When a person is
engaged in a negotiation for too long, he/ she will be become too personally involved in the negotiation and make unwise decision. Therefore, it is very important to set a deadline for the negotiation before the actual negotiation starts.

Lastly, in knowing yourself, you should assess you resources. In the context of negotiation, resources can be concrete assets, such as other people, files, and data to support your side. Resources can also include skills that are assets to you in this situation.

Knowledge of your opponent

"Therefore, determine the enemy's plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not."

Understanding the other party is vital to planning a good strategy. Although one may learn about the other party during the negotiation, it is not enough to find out as you go along. The more you know about the other party a head of time the better. Thus, you should conduct research about the opponent ahead of time. In particular, one should find out the other party's objectives, interests and needs, BATNA (if possible), resources, reputation, negotiation style and behavior, authority to make an agreement, and their likely strategy and tactics. Ones strategy and tactics have to correspond to the information one has about the opponent.

Knowledge of the situation

"Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete."

According to Lewicki et al. (1996), situational factors tend to have a subtle but i mportant impact on the process of negotiation. In the context of negotiation, situation factors include elements such as deadlines, constituencies, options, and rules and regulations. According to Sun Tzu, these factors are important to understand because they frequently affect the parties and determine which side has more power in the negotiation. In order to win in the negotiation, one should try to evaluate whether the factors are beneficial or detrimental to your party.

"Therefore, use these assessments for comparison, to find out what the conditions are. That is to say, which political leadership has the Way? Which general has ability? Who has the better climate and terrain? Whose discipline is effective? Whose troops are the stronger? Whose officers and soldiers are the better trained? Whose system of rewards and punishments is clearer? This is how you can know who will win."

Negotiation strategy

"All warfare is based on deception."

"When capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, pretend that you are near."

Most of the strategies Sun Tzu suggested are based on the use of deception. By deception, we mean the use of negotiation tactics to mislead the other party. One should note that deception in this sense do not mean illegal untruth.

"Draw them in with prospect of gain, take them by confusion"

"Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance."

Negotiation is about conflict and conflict management. One way of reducing conflict in a negotiation is to make options more desirable to the other party. If you understand the other party's need, then you will be in a better position to convince them to accept your solution, especially if your offer takes into account the other side's needs. When presenting your offer, you should emphasize the attractive qualities of it and minimize the negatives.

"When the opponent attacked, withdraw before them, frustrating their desire to join battle; when the opponent tried to withdraw, pressed them."

Most Asians attempt to win their negotiation with foreigners using this combination of tactics. When the other party wishes to negotiate, frustrating them by keeping silent and let them wait. In return, when the other party is tired of waiting (and even become impatient) and would like to end the negotiation, then they offer concessions "at the gate of the airport."

"The primary colors are only five in number but their combinations are so infinite that one cannot visualize them all. The flavors are only five in number but their blends are so various that one cannot taste them all."

"Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances"

Sun Tzu writes that all strategies are the combination and recombination of basic elements. But the formulation of has to be subordinated to the knowledge of oneself, opponent and the situation. All these components change and so the strategy may have be adapted.

Most of the negotiations involve a mixture of issues, and each of them may be best handled with a different strategy. However, one should note that there is no single best strategy. Variations in the positions of the parties and the context of the negotiation will affect each negotiation differently. And as negotiations evolve, each side will make adjustments and thus require a change of strategy used . Therefore, applying the one approach you are already comfortable with is a guarantee that your strategy will be wrong in the majority of
negotiation situations.


"Therefore it is said that one may know how to win, but cannot necessarily do so."

Due to the reason that the text was written 2,300 years ago, some of the tactics that was suggested are considered unethical or even illegal in many contemporary societes. However, the idea that knowing how to win does not guarantee victory, is still very valid in negotiations today. Having a winning strategy does not secure a compromise.

One needs to be able to implement this startegy, be receptive to changes in the negotiation dynamics and the position of ones opponents and be able to adapt the strategy whenever the situation requires it. Having a good strategy helps to plan and conduct negotiations, it give an advantage but no guarantee for success.


Fisher, R. and W. Ury. "Getting To Yes: Negotiating To A Agreement Without Giving In". New York, Penguin Books, 1991.
Floyd, R. “The Art of War and The Art of Management,” Industrial Management,34(5), 25-26, 1992.
Guisso, R. W. et al. "The First Emperor of China." New York, Birch Lane Press, 1989.
Lewicki, R. J. et al. Think Before You Speak: A complete Guide to Strategic Negotiation. New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996.
McNeilly, M. "Sun Tzu And The Art Of Business: Six Strategic Principles For Managers." New York, Oxford University Press.
Sun Tzu, "The Art of War of War." (R.D. Sawyer translation), Boulder, Westview 1994.

  June 23, 2018
© Copyright 1996-2018 Gregory Kersten & The InterNeg Group
InterNeg Research Centre, Concordia University (Montreal)