The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies- Strategy Three – ‘Murder with a borrowed knife’ means “to conserve energy by using another person’s strength”

To function successfully in the Greater China Region, and therefore maximise your business success it is crucial to know how to recognise and respond effectively to the 36 Chinese Strategies. Knowledge of the Chinese negotiating culture, which means how the 36 Chinese Strategies are used, is your greatest asset. One of the 36 Chinese Strategies used is Strategy Three – ‘Murder with a borrowed knife’ 借刀杀人 which means “to conserve energy by using another person’s strength”.

When Strategy Three– ‘Murder with a borrowed knife’ 借刀杀人 is applied on you  it will be the Chinese negotiator of lower authority who will ask you difficult questions or will have the difficult issues directed to them because the leader is “preserving their strength”.

A way of understanding how Strategy Three – ‘Murder with a borrowed knife’ 借刀杀人 works is to imagine you are in a chess match. The king is the most important piece on the chessboard. Victory comes when you can place your opponent’s king in checkmate. Yet of all the chess pieces it is the king that moves the least. To locate the most powerful person in a Chinese group, look for the person who says the least and has minimal interaction with the opposing side, just like the king on the chessboard.


What to do when Strategy Three– ‘Murder with a borrowed knife’ 借刀杀人  is applied on you 

Introduce your group to the Chinese group in such a way as to demonstrate a clear hierarchy. Now this may not be how you normally operate.  A Western negotiating team is likely to be composed of people who hold a similar level of authority.

Structuring your negotiating team in a hierarchical manner for the purpose of achieving your goals with your Chinese counterparts will give the Chinese group the opportunity to expose the hierarchical structure of their group. By matching their structure you will make this disclosure easier, and you will be more certain of the relative status of each member of their group. The benefit of using a hierarchical structure, where everyone has a specific task or role, is that it will save your team a lot of energy when negotiating in China. Negotiating through a different organisational structure to your Chinese counterparts, particularly when in you are in their country will be exhausting, and may not be understood by them. If you operate in an egalitarian structure where all of your team participate relatively equally, it is likely you will all, including the leader of your team, exhaust yourselves.


Using Strategy Three– ‘Murder with a borrowed knife’ 借刀杀人  in a Western business environment

You can use Strategy Three in a Western context through a pre-arranged delegation of tasks in the negotiation process, just as you would when negotiating a deal with Chinese businesspeople. The people in your team to whom you delegate tasks need to be prepared so they can answer an array of questions from the opposite negotiating team. This will conserve your energy and strength.  As a leader, you will need to be consistently clear with your team about your leadership model, which means knowing your team well enough to delegate tasks with confidence. Your staff need to be fully prepared, so they will feel confident about managing the questions and other issues that may arise. They need to know that conserving the leader’s energy is part of the negotiating plan, so they will not approach you with questions in front of your negotiating opponents.

For more information on the 36 Chinese Strategies read ‘Tame the Tiger – Negotiating from a position of power’, ‘Deceive the Dragon – Negotiating to retain Power’, ‘Lure the Tiger – Negotiating in confronting circumstances’, ‘Bewilder the Dragon – Negotiating amongst confusion’ and ‘Endure the Tiger – Negotiating to gain ground‘. These books contain practical examples of the 36 Chinese Strategies, which are known to be the essence of Chinese business practices. The books are a great read for people who want to understand how to  confidently conduct business with Chinese people, and who are interested in learning strategies to be better negotiators in any environment.

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