The adage “appear weak when you are strong” is a concept that has spanned several centuries with wide-ranging applications in various aspects of life, from negotiations to competition, conflict resolution to leadership, politics to business, etc. The purpose of this article is to provide a comprehensive understanding of what it means to appear weak when you are strong, its applications, and how it can be used as a strategic advantage in different scenarios.
First of all, what does it mean to “appear weak when you are strong”?
The idea behind this concept is quite clear: by deliberately creating an impression of being less powerful, less capable, and less of a threat, you can attract less attention, avoid conflict, and exert influence in a more subtle, indirect way. This concept is particularly useful in specific situations like you will see shortly in this article.
This article will explore various applications where you can effectively make negotiations, prevent conflicts, and achieve better results by appearing weak when you are strong. As mentioned before, we will delve into its applications in negotiations, competition, conflict resolution, leadership, politics, and business.
Appear weak when you are strong: Historical perspective
The concept of “appearing weak when you are strong” has its roots, tracing back to ancient military treatises and works on strategy and negotiation. Though might be a widespread concept during ancient times, one of the earliest and most well-known references to this idea can be found the Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. This ancient Chinese military text, written over 2,000 years ago, stresses the importance of flexible and adaptable strategies in war, including the use of deceptive tactics to create confusion and uncertainty in the enemy’s mind.
In “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, he talked about 33 powerful pieces of leadership advice that can empower you to succeed in work, leadership, management, and life, including the idea of appearing weak when you are strong. Here are the 33 philosophical principles of Sun Tzu in The Art of War.
- A leader leads by example, not by force.
- You have to believe in yourself.
- Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
- If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put a division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
- The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
- Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
- If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things.
- Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
- To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.
- Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
- Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.
- Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and what confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds, while you wait for the extraordinary moment – that which they cannot anticipate.
- If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
- Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory:
- He will win, who knows when to fight, and when not to fight.
- He will win, who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
- He will win, whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
- He will win, who prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
- He will win, who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.
- Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.
- Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics, without a strategy, is the noise before defeat.
- There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever be seen. There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.
- Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
- When the enemy is relaxed, make them toil. When full, starve them. When settled, make them move.
- Know yourself and you will win all battles.
- Move swift as the Wind and closely formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.
- Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.
- When strong, avoid them. If of high morale, depress them. Seem humble to fill them with conceit. If at ease, exhaust them. If united, separate them. Attack their weaknesses. Emerge to their surprise.
- All warfare is based on deception. Hence, 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.
- There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
- The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.
- Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.
- Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
- All warfare is based on deception.
- When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.
These highlights, including his idea of “appearing weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak”, are important tactics that helped him and other warriors to defeat their enemies at war. But far beyond the battle, this concept of appearing weak when you are strong, as well as the rest of them, has found useful applications in various aspects of life.
The psychology behind how appearing weak works
Machiavelli, in “The Prince” also explored the concept of appearing weak when you are strong. Asides from this, you may have personally experienced how this concept plays out in our day-to-day activities. By appearing weak, you can exert more influence than you would have if you showed too much power and strength.
The psychology behind this is simple and straightforward. When you appear weak, you become less of a threat to other people. They don’t feel pressured or obliged to follow you.
When it comes to willingness to serve, act, or follow, allowing people to use their voluntary will has its shortcoming of making some people shy away, but the advantages of free will to decide to follow or not overweight the shortcomings. When people volunteer to be under your influence, they are more enthusiastic and energized than if they were forced or pressurized.
By appearing weak to people, even when you are strong, you show them that you are not interested in exerting your power or strength on them. And this makes them choose you voluntarily while fully expending their energy to remain under your influence.
These concepts are practical to our everyday life. In the next section, you will see specific areas where appearing weak (when you are strong) can help you achieve greater success and/or influence.
Specific applications of the concept of appearing weak when you are strong
We have talked about what it means to appear weak when you are strong. As promised, we will see specific areas where this concept can be applied to help you achieve better results.
In the areas of negotiations, appearing weak when you are actually strong can create an impression of vulnerability or lower expectations. The other party is made to believe that they have an advantage that can make them more willing to make concessions in the bargain.
By appearing weak, you may be able to create a perception of cooperation and willingness to find a mutually beneficial solution, you make the other side feel more comfortable and open to negotiation. Once this ground is set, you can then subtly introduce your demands, but this time, they feel it is their own turn to concede for you as well.
Appearing weak when you are strong is a very trickish way of behaving in a competition because it deceives your opponent into thinking they don’t require much to defeat you. True they say, that the first mistake anyone can make at war is to underestimate your enemy. However, appearing weak when you are stronger is one way you can use this to your advantage.
When you appear weak to your opponent, they might be deceived to underestimate your capability and they may then lose their guard. And then, it becomes easier for you to become the winner of that competition.
Teams or individuals who know this, learn to always keep alert and diligent whether or not the opponents act stronger or weaker.
3. Conflict resolution
Conflict resolution is another important area that can benefit from you appearing weaker than you are. When you appear weak, or you present yourself as such, the conflicting partner feels more comfortable and less threatened. This creates a more suitable atmosphere for dialogue and compromise by de-escalating tensions and encouraging the other party to be more conciliatory.
In conflict resolution, appearing weak when you are strong doesn’t mean you are conceding defeat but it shows that you are willing to allow them to win in whatever conflict you are involved in. When your conflict partner perceives your submissiveness, it can herald to them that you are no longer a threat, and thus, set the pace for resolving the conflict.
In my experience and opinion, discipline or leadership is one that requires a good level of the leader’s ability to appear weak to the followers. Being a leader already puts you in a powerful position. This should be quite obvious to anyone who cares to observe. However, being too showy in your leadership style can make your followers very uncomfortable.
Appearing weak as a leader means you can willingly turn a blind eye to the wrongs of those you are leading; you display humility when you are with them; and you can let them express themselves when necessary. By appearing weak, a leader can help build trust and encourage others to be more open and candid in their communication.
People always believe that when someone is too power-hungry, they have ulterior motives that may have negative consequences. They want a leader who is calm, reserved, and who displays to them that he/she will not allow the power of their position to get in their head.
Also, appearing weak can be a way of avoiding confrontation, especially when you have to interact with other political leaders or other leaders under your control. Appearing weak makes other people you deal with less threatened and more comfortable around you.
Appearing weak in business is also another way to camouflage and deflect unnecessary attention or competition. This allows your partners to bring more opportunities your way and for you to take advantage of these opportunities.
When you act too powerful around your partners, it creates tension as they try to neutralize your power. This sets in stage an unwarranted competition that could make things very difficult for everyone. Instead of threatening your partners, appear weak, friendly, and receptive, while still doing your background work without relenting.
There are other areas where appearing weak when you are strong can find application, but these few areas are some of the most important. It is important to note that by appearing weak, the goal is to make another person who is or could potentially be your rival, feel less threatened and more comfortable.
The concept of appearing weak when you are strong has popularly found references to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. This idea finds applications in various aspects of life including business, conflict resolution, politics, leadership, etc. This article explored how you can apply this concept it these aspects listed above.
On a final note, appearing weak does not always mean you are weak. It could be a strategic way of defusing your enemy or opponent and making them less aggressive, while you carry on with what you need to do.
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