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Brain circuits

How to talk to adversaries

Published 1 February 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

There is a difference between an adversary and a difficult person. An adversary acts directly or indirectly to block your success, whereas a difficult person is someone who has traits or characteristics that make it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with them. Knowing the difference, even if behaviors overlap, is very important to understand their underlying motivation. All behavior has a purpose. It is crucial to make an effort to objectively identify what a person’s purpose is. Remember – the goal of an adversary is to block your path and impede your success.

The motivation of an adversary falls into three areas: focused, emotional, or revengeful. When clashing with a team member or colleague whose interests may not be aligned with yours, it is important to learn how to work with them. Everyone needs this skill, especially leaders. Here’s the good news – it is a skill that can be learned.

What to do

The human brain is a social brain, and it wants to build relationships. We are social in nature, and we thrive with bonding. The key is to connect with the other person about something they need, or something that matters to them. You do not have to like somebody to form a bond with them.

This is the one thing that is difficult for many people to do – bond with someone you do not like. As a hostage negotiator, I talked with people who had done despicable things or had extremely repulsive ideas. It was necessary to find a way to connect and form a bond with them in order to negotiate for the release of the hostages.

The same principles apply in business. You don’t have to like or even respect the behavior of the other party to create a bond with them. And the way you do this is by finding common ground.

  1. You must form a bond with your adversary.
  2. Learn how to separate the person from the problem.
  3. Learn the difference between accepting and agreeing: You can accept anything without agreeing or judging it.
  4. Manage your own emotions, especially the urge to be reactive, aggressive, or defensive.
  5. Avoid power struggles by listening and asking questions.
  6. Always be respectful, honest, and “kill with kindness”!

The exercise

Think about a person you need to resolve a conflict with and write down what your goals are and what goals you have in common. Then write down what you want and what you think the other person wants. If you do not know what the other person wants, prepare the questions you can ask them to find out. Then use your mind’s eye to picture what a successful relationship with that person would look like. See yourself approaching that person and what you would say or the questions you would ask.

Finally, find the courage to go and to do it!


george kohreiser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.


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