The Art of War

The other day I was having lunch with a couple of friends of mine. They are both very successful businessmen, but they both come from a very different background. We went to the restaurant around three in the afternoon, as we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and we suspected, well my two friends suspected, that they were going to get into a long discussion. Not only do they have completely different business backgrounds, but also they have different beliefs in business and even their political views are at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

After we made our small talk, catching up on our personal lives, it appeared as though they were going to get into it. There has been a lot of political activity lately, as I’m sure you’re well aware, and I was expecting a long protracted discussion on at least one of the major issues. It’s interesting the way my friends argue. They argue verbally like guys fight in those old martial arts movies. When the two enemies see each other from across the room, they slowly approach each other, and circle each other, trying to judge the other’s potential strengths and weaknesses. You don’t want to attack too soon, because if you put all your energy into the opening move, you risk exposing yourself if it doesn’t turn out well.

Of course many football coaches would disagree with me. There are several very famous football coaches that have built their reputation on a strong, up the middle, running game. Football games like this are pure muscle versus muscle. Some people find these games incredibly exciting, especially when a running back breaks through and gains several yards on one carry.

Other forms of conflict are more strategic. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese Military strategist who wrote “The Art of War,” but many of his techniques are based on using the enemy’s weakness against him.

This is generally how my friend will get into an argument. It usually starts out with one person letting slip an opinion, and the other person noticing that it is one they’d like to argue with. But the trick is to not let on that you disagree with it. The trick is to say something like “Oh, really? How do you mean?” with sincere interest in the others opinion. Then through causal conversation, lead the other person out enough so that they reveal sufficient information upon which to base your argument.

Of course both of them, having known each other for quite some time, both are very adept at this strategy, so often they use all kinds of strategy that would make a CIA interrogator proud. They let slip some information, hoping to bait the other person into responding. It becomes a rather beautiful conversational chess game to watch. It definitely takes a lot of focus and concentration to keep up with the conversation, because there is always a lot of subtlety going on below the surface. You never really know what is the surface structure of the argument and what is the underlying deep structure of what they are really trying to say.

But just like watching a highly anticipated boxing match, after watching a few rounds where the fighters are feeling each other out, you can’t help but start to really want to see some heavy combinations thrown. Personally, I think one of the greatest artists in this regard, at least in the boxing ring, was Sugar Ray Leonard. Watching him fight was like watching an artist create release a beautiful sculpture that has been trapped inside a stone for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, when watching a protracted intellectual discussion, it’s difficult to know when “it’s on like Donkey Kong.” You have to really pay attention to things to know who is getting the upper hand and who has overextended their argument beyond the realm of logical support and into the realm of pure, unsubstantiated opinion. It would certainly help if people like my friends would take breaks every now and then and some scorekeeper would let me know who was ahead on points.

Sometimes they’ll be talking about the merits of one political candidate, and because I know my friends respective political leanings, I kind of have an idea of who is on the offensive and who is on the defensive, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. They’ll be talking about the Supreme Court, and then a few minutes later they’ll be talking about bond derivatives or something else completely baffling to me. Sometimes I don’t know who won until we all get up to leave. The “loser” usually has an expression of “you got me today, but I’ll get you next time” as he pays the bill.

Watching people like that speak sure is an education. Both in patience and in subtle communication skills. Bruce Lee would be proud.