‘’On the surface, warfare and negotiation may seem to be polar opposites. The objective in war is to defeat the enemy. In negotiation, the goal is to find a solution that satisfies all the parties. Not surprisingly, little cross-learning and exchange have occurred across the two domains. In spite of important differences, however, the dynamics of war and negotiation have much in common. Specifically, both involve the interaction of motivated agents with distinct interests, perceptions, and values (especially in high-stakes contexts). As a result, robust strategy, creativity, and nimble tactics are essential both on the battlefield and at the bargaining table. Just as negotiation theory could be enriched by principles of manoeuvre warfare, military doctrine offers officers and soldiers a potentially useful foundation to better understand and manage the negotiation process, especially in complex, cross-cultural contexts.”

*[Michael Wheeler ’The Fog of Negotiation: What Negotiators Can Learn from Military Doctrine’ Negotiation Journal January 2013]

“Machines don’t fight wars. Terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where battles are won.”


––United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd (Curts and Campbell 2001: 2)


* Michael Wheeler is the Class of 1952, Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School and the editor of Negotiation Journal. His e-mail address is 10.1111/nejo.12003 © 2013 President and Fellows of Harvard College.


At the time when I noticed the title of the article, it sparked interest insofar as ‘Negotiation v ‘Military Doctrine’ seemed irreconcilable concepts. The perception held by most is that Negotiation = Peace and Military Doctrine = Warfare.

The immediate deduction may be made that negotiation has no place in battle or of little if any relevance within the realm of strategic warfare. 

I then recalled the words of a South African Army General [who will not be named], “All wars eventually come to an end when a peace deal has been negotiated.”

In the article supra the learned author, Wheeler at 23 opens by a ‘provisional acknowledgement’ that warfare and negotiation seem worlds apart, at least at first glance.

In combat, one side seeks to dominate the other. Parties in negotiation — even those with adverse interests — jointly seek a solution that is at least satisfactory for all involved.

A comparison is made in clarification of the two ostensible irreconcilable concepts by reference to the undermentioned quotations:

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) manual, Warfighting, has declared that war is “a state of mind bent on shattering the enemy morally and physically by paralyzing and confounding him, by avoiding his strength, by quickly and aggressively exploiting his vulnerabilities, and by striking him in a way that will hurt him most”.


[Warfighting. 1989. Fleet Marine Force Manual. United States Marine Corps. Available from HTTP:// — ——.  (Second edition). 1997. Fleet Marine Force Manual. United States Marine Corps. Available from The manual, in its entirety, can be found at medp1.pdf, among other sites on the Internet. The fact that it is publicly available suggests that success ultimately rides on how well any strategy is actually executed.]   


The author, then, by contrast, refers to a popular text in a publication authored by Kennedy supra wherein it is stated that “Negotiating is about trading. This distinguishes it from other forms of decision making.

In negotiation, there is an explicit trade: I get some of what I want, and you get some of what you want”


[Kennedy, G. ‘Field guide to negotiation: A glossary of essential tools and concepts for today’s manager’ Boston: 1994, Harvard Business School Press.]


After perusal of the paragraphs quoted above and without perusal of the article by Wheeler the reader would in all probability reply, ‘So what…? Warfare and negotiation remain irreconcilable concepts, with distinct and opposite interests as well as objectives.’


Wheeler states at 24 that notwithstanding the obvious differences between the two domains, however, there also are important parallels that have been largely overlooked. The potential for cross-learning is considerable. Popular negotiation books, for example, have paid little attention to crafting and implementing strategy in fluid, uncertain environments. Instead, they typically have posited static situations with clearly defined parties whose interests and no agreement options are implicitly unchanging.

According to Wheeler neat negotiating’ models often fail to capture real-world conditions. Surprises ‘pop up’ even in everyday negotiations:

  1. ii) competitors or as they are termed ‘stakeholders’ or ‘concerned citizens’ arrive on the scene; and
  2. i) new issues may arise;
  3. iii) walk-away options may improve or deteriorate.

Modern theories of manoeuvre warfare could help fill this conceptual void, particularly in devising ways to effectively move forward and adapt in the face of uncertainty and risk; especially in crisis situations.

Learning can happen in the other direction as well. Military personnel who need to master key negotiation concepts to win local support and cooperation in war-torn regions could ramp up their learning curve by adapting what they already know about strategy and tactics. A well-known phrase or rather intelligence strategy comes to mind, namely “Winning the hearts and the minds of the inhabitants of a war-torn region.’

In the article, the author specifically focusses on Warfighting, written by USMC Captain John Schmitt in 1989 and revised by him in 1997. That work, in turn, is based on sources as varied as Carl von Clausewitz, Winston Churchill, and Chinese military legend Sun Tzu. As General A. M. Gray, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, stated in his foreword to the first edition of Warfighting, its “philosophy for action represents not just guidance for actions in combat, but a way of thinking in general” (Warfighting 1989: foreword).

The author refers to strategic warfare and uses examples as comparators in order to emphasize the importance of concepts such as agility and situational awareness as critical in negotiation, as well as the ability to thrive in chaotic and shifting environments.

At the bargaining table, of course, the goal is not to vanquish, disable, or demoralize one’s counterpart. Instead, it is to ‘jointly attack’ the problem, the barriers to a possible solution, especially when tensions are high and time is tight, as is often crucial in crisis negotiation.

According to Wheeler, having the right mindset is essential in combat and in negotiation. According to the Warfighting manual, “the mind is an officer’s principal weapon” (1997: 64). The same surely applies for master negotiators.

Six aspects of military theory and practice are identified, assimilated or incorporated in negotiation dynamics. A brief discussion of the six aspects follows hereunder.



“In war and in negotiation, no one is in full control of his or her own destiny.”


A keen awareness of the other side is equally as important in negotiation, where different parties have their own priorities, perceptions, expectations, and values. Sometimes, negotiators may act unilaterally, of course, without regard for anyone else’s interests, rights, or resources — or for the longer-term ramifications of unilateral actions.


But often, meeting objectives requires winning other people’s agreement, cooperation, or support. While the negotiator strives to influence the other party, the negotiator should be acutely aware that the opposing party will push to advance their goals, notwithstanding how it may be construed, rightly or wrongly. [At 27].


Matters can become more complicated if the representatives or ‘key people’ have not fully thought through their interests or if they harbour unrealistic hopes about what may be gained from a negotiated agreement. Time pressure and possible miscommunication can trigger mutual frustration. In the end, it takes just one party performing poorly under such conditions to ‘hobble the whole interaction.’


Managing the negotiation process requires the integration of different cognitive, emotional, and social skills. As the late Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Negotiation is like playing chess while climbing a mountain.” Like chess players, effective problem solvers coolly weigh possible moves and try to anticipate likely consequences.


“They are artists, as well, sculpting agreements to satisfy the parties’ interests. Negotiators should be skilful interpersonally, adept at reading what their counterparts are thinking and feeling. They should also be emotionally nimble — passionately involved in the moment-to-moment interaction while simultaneously maintaining a detached awareness of their long-term interests.” [At 26].


The author then cautions negotiators that decision making, communication, persuasion, and problem-solving are familiar skills for civilians and soldiers alike. However, negotiation is more than the mechanical sum of those constituent parts. Integrating its various elements, ‘often on the fly’, requires comfort with ambiguity and risk. It also entails accepting the reality that not everything is within the negotiators' control in negotiation. (“If an outcome could be imposed then no need would exist to be at the bargaining table in the first place”.)


The negotiator may have good intentions however; said virtue does not guarantee that the opposing party will necessarily accept the negotiator’s bona fides. By temperament or history, other parties may be distrustful. Overcoming a party’s reluctance to negotiate openly may test the negotiator’s skills and patience.


Coping with Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Friction

Uncertainty is a fact of life in war and in negotiation.”


The author makes reference to the publication supra Warfighting, and observes that perfect clarity and complete information are never possible in combat; therefore, decisions must be based on reasonable probabilities and calculated risks.


All actions in war take place in an atmosphere of uncertainty, “the fog of war. “Uncertainty pervades battle in the form of unknowns about the enemy, about the environment, and even about the friendly situation. While we try to reduce these unknowns by gathering information, we must realize we cannot eliminate them — or even come close. The very nature of war makes certainty impossible; all actions in war will be based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information.” (1997: 7)

The same uncertainty applies to negotiators, as well. The negotiator is seldom fully aware of the true interests of the opposing party, their no-deal alternatives, or their willingness to compromise. The persuasive negotiator could, for example, precipitate agreement on certain points that the opposing party would have rejected at first. As a consequence, it may be a challenge at the outset to know how much room there is for agreement, or what approach would maximize the chance of reaching it. [At 27].


It is often said in the military that “battle plans go out the window at first contact with the enemy.” Indeed, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the architect of the invasion of Allied forces into Normandy in World War Two, famously said, “Plans are worthless. Planning is everything” (Eisenhower 1957).


The above quotation is not a contradiction. A well-conceived process for planning can underscore goals, expose potential obstacles, and illuminate possible paths around them, even though the exact route may not be determined until the interaction is well underway. [At 27].


According to Wheeler, negotiation strategies, like battle plans, should articulate an overarching, clearly identified intent, tested by analyzing the situation from the point of view of the enemy (or one’s counterpart).

The authors of the Marine Corps manual noted the importance of preparing for different scenarios that might unfold but expresses caution about forecasts in the face of unavoidable uncertainty.

Reliable intelligence of the opponent is important in warfare and the same applies in negotiation, where different parties have their own priorities, objectives, perceptions, expectations, and values. Without reliable information planning and strategizing would be impossible.


The quotations by Sun Tzu are noteworthy:


If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not to 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.” 
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War


“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear 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.” 
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War



Wheeler makes the observation that it would be foolish to think that negotiators could ever script a negotiation. It is simply impossible to anticipate the negotiating tactics by the opponent. Just as the US Marines usually have a “bump plan,” negotiators need to have a plan B at the ready in case events do not play out as hoped or expected.


For example, an item on the agenda may at first appear during the planning phase to be listed as if of little importance.

However, during negotiations, the said agenda item may prove to be of significance to the opponent. A plan B may serve to secure whatever agreement is essential to ensure a continuation of the process while leaving other issues open for later resolution. Reframing the current priority as pilot venture may both make it easier to get short-term agreement and pave the way for a broader settlement down the road.


Indeed, without using the word “negotiation,” the authors of the counterinsurgency manual virtually echoed that same principle.

“Do not try to crack the hardest nut first. Do not go straight for the main insurgent stronghold or try to take on villages that support insurgents. Instead, start from secure areas and work gradually outwards. Extend influence through the local people’s networks. Go with, not against, the grain of the local populace. First, win the confidence of a few villages, and then work with those with whom they trade, intermarry, or do business. This tactic develops local allies, a mobilized populace, and trusted networks.


Seek a victory early in the operation to demonstrate the dominance of the AO [area of operations]. This may not be a combat victory. Early combat without an accurate situational understanding may create unnecessary collateral damage and ill will. Instead, victories may involve resolving a long-standing issue or co-opting a key local leader. Achieving even a small early victory can set the tone for the tour and help commanders seize the initiative” (Department of the Army 2006: A-5).

Wheeler contends that uncertainty and adversity are analytic problems and also tax the negotiators’ stamina, creativity, and resolve. The following passage from Warfighting could just as well have been written for negotiators.

“Friction may be mental, as in indecision over a course of action. It may be physical, as in an effective enemy fire or a terrain obstacle that must be overcome. Friction may be external, imposed by enemy action, the terrain, weather, or mere chance. Friction may be self-induced, caused by such factors as lack of a clearly defined goal, lack of coordination, unclear or complicated plans, complex task organizations or command relationships, or complicated technologies. Whatever form it takes, because war is a human enterprise, friction will always have a psychological as well as a physical impact.” (Schmitt 1997: 5–6).

Friction in negotiation cannot be wished away. As noted in Warfighting, friction may be mental (indecision) or physical (time constraints). It may be imposed by others’ surprising actions or be self-induced. Whatever the source of friction negotiation strategy and organizational processes must take it into account. [At 29].

Identifying Surfaces and Gaps

In a nutshell, reaching agreement in negotiation depends on finding terms that each side regards as superior to its respective go-it-alone alternatives.”


The author is of the opinion that the negotiating process thus can be described as a ‘joint search’, although complicated by the fact that parties typically have differing viewpoints, interests, and styles. Moreover, both sides may be reluctant to reveal what they really are looking for, lest their needs are exploited.


Identifying the boundaries of possible agreement is thus akin to reckoning battlefield conditions. In military terms, “surfaces” and “gaps” refer to ‘the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.’ Surfaces are hard and solid — the strengths — while gaps are the weak points or openings that can be taken advantage of.


Attacks against surfaces waste energy and resources. ‘Finding and, if need be, creating gaps allows more opportunities for success.’


Hostile opponents will do their best to disguise both their surfaces and their gaps. The passage of time also transforms battlefield features. Colonel Boyd learned from the writings of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte that “Early tactics, without apparent design, operate in a fluid adaptable manner to uncover, expand and exploit adversary vulnerabilities and weaknesses. . ..”


Warfighting observed that:

“Due to the fluid nature of war, gaps will rarely be permanent and will usually be fleeting. To exploit them demands flexibility and speed. We must actively seek out gaps by continuous and aggressive reconnaissance. Once we locate them, we must exploit them by funnelling our forces through rapidly. For example, if the main effort has struck a surface but another unit has located a gap, we designate the second unit as the main effort and redirect our combat power in support of it” (1997: 93).

 Parties searching for agreement likewise encounter surfaces and gaps. In the context of negotiation, surfaces may be thought of as points of resistance, demands that the other party will surrender only at great cost.

Gaps, in turn, are those areas (positions, interests, and demands) in which there is room for movement and exchange. Just as in battle, the surfaces and gaps of potential agreement can be hard to detect and subject to change, as the parties’ options and preferences evolve in the course of negotiation.

The process of joint exploration may be one of trial and error, with each party ‘trying to distinguish real resistance from mere bluffing or miscommunication.’


Simultaneous Learning, Adapting, and Influencing

“Counterinsurgency is ‘a game of wits and will. You’ve got to be learning and adapting constantly in order to survive” Here again, a military insight applies to negotiation with equal force.’” [Army General Peter J. Schoomaker].

Some negotiation texts offer advice on keeping one’s wits and managing the process. The best of them do not simply deal with isolated tactics but additionally encourage a broader view of how the ongoing exchange shapes the bargaining relationship.


In Getting Past No, for example, Ury, W. ‘Getting past no: Negotiating in difficult situations’ New York: Bantam, 1991, William Ury urged “going to the balcony” (adopting a detached perspective), to constantly monitor whether the dialogue is moving in a constructive direction. In The Shadow Negotiation, Deborah Kolb and Judith Williams (2000) described specific “moves and turns” that can redress power imbalances and reposition the parties in future interactions.


Interpreting what the other side is doing is imperative in both manoeuvre warfare and negotiation. Warfighting stated that “We should try to ‘get inside’ the enemy’s thought processes and ‘’see the enemy as he sees himself. . .. We should not assume that every enemy thinks as we do, fights as we do, or has the same values or objectives” (1997: 77). [At 31].

Soldiers and negotiators thus need to build on their respective experience and past successes but be vigilant in their search for unfamiliar perils and opportunities.

The author expresses the opinion that if negotiators are thoroughly prepared then they will be better positioned to lead the process in order to achieve the best result or rater predetermined objective by agreement. By contrast, if the negotiator’s strategic assessment of the opponents’ desired objectives is inaccurate then the opposing party in all probability will be in control of the process and shaping the negotiation environment.

Inflexibility as to a predetermined mandate, expectations and objectives may result in a lack of assessment of the dynamics of the negotiating process which is characterized by changing conditions. The result of inflexibility or a display of rigidity will prove to stifle the negotiation process, if not lead to the negotiations being unsuccessful.

Balancing Initiative and Organizational Alignment

“In a military organization, much is made of the sanctity of command, but the real world challenge lies in respecting hierarchy while simultaneously encouraging individual action and responsibility.”

The author of Warfighting stated that:

“As part of our philosophy of command we, must recognize that war is inherently disorderly, uncertain, dynamic, and dominated by friction. . .. For commanders to try to gain certainty as a basis for actions, maintain positive control of events at all times, or shape events to fit their plans is to deny the very nature of war. We must therefore be prepared to cope — even better, to thrive — in an environment of chaos, uncertainty, constant change, and friction.” [At 32].


As a result, the Marines (as well as other branches) put a premium on decentralized command and local initiative. The same conditions play out in negotiations whenever the person at the bargaining table represents other parties or organizations. For example, business managers, like commanders, must balance direction and delegation. On the one hand, trying to give their sales and procurement people precise instructions on what and how to negotiate would stifle initiative and creativity.

Rigid directions would handcuff negotiators in the field when they encounter unexpected opportunities or pitfalls. On the other hand, merely giving subordinates wide discretion and wishing them good luck when they negotiate would invite bad decision making and poor internal coordination. Maintaining balance between these two poles is essential for the success of the negotiators, as well as the organizations they represent. [At 32].

The author makes an important observation “In this regard, negotiators could learn an important lesson from modern military practice. Specifically, officers are trained to state the underlying intent of their specific orders. This allows “subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative — to depart from the original plan when the unforeseen occurs in a way that is consistent with higher commanders’ aims. . .. While a situation may change, making the task obsolete, the intent is more lasting and continues to guide our actions” (Warfighting 1997: 88–89).

According to Warfighting, “a commander’s statement of intent should be brief and compelling — the more concise, the better” (1997: 90).

The same principle applies when a manager gives instructions to his or her negotiators. If the stated purpose is clear and concise, personnel in the field — with hands-on knowledge about the people with whom they are dealing — can better forge workable agreements.


Designing Effective Training

It is one thing to understand the principles of negotiation (or warfare, for that matter) on an abstract level. Actually, putting those concepts and techniques into action in high risk, uncertain, and rapidly changing environments is something else entirely, given the inevitable friction that the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult (Warfighting 1997: 5).


Five key principles are listed that underscore the design of negotiation training. They also suggest what is required to learn to be a more effective negotiator. The principles are briefly discussed to below.


Train Like You Fight


The Warfighting manual has asserted that military training exercises “should approximate the conditions of war as much as possible; that is, they should introduce friction in the form of uncertainty, stress, and opposing wills.”


Young soldiers are trained and must make hard choices when they are uncomfortable and exhausted. Only then can they develop confidence and determination. Recruits have a saying, “If it isn’t raining’, then we aren’t training’.”


When diligent students perform simulations, they are not negotiating issues and items that matter to them personally. On the other hand, egos are at stake. High-achieving students are unlikely to be satisfied with negotiating an outcome that is inferior to what most of their classmates have achieved.

When participants on both sides of the exercise are motivated, they test and strengthen one another’s skills. [At 33].


Cultivate a Culture of Bold Decision Making

Wheeler is of the opinion that ‘it is hard to learn from excessive caution.’ A negotiator who never pushes the envelope by floating a novel idea has no way of knowing just how big that envelope might be. Likewise, a negotiator who seldom draws a line about what is not negotiable will learn little about being firm and persuasive. Would-be negotiators who push themselves (and others) will learn the most.

Teach Students to Fail and then Fight Back

In leadership training, Marine officers are routinely given high-stakes problems with too little information, time, and resources to solve them. The point is to teach young officers how to fail, take responsibility for their actions, and learn from mistakes.


Likewise, in class, the toughest negotiations are the most instructive (more so, e.g., than an exercise that pairs a desperate seller with a buyer who has trunk loads of money).

"In failure, we must ask what we might have done differently. By contrast, when we succeed, it is hard to know whether we were smart or just lucky to be matched with a counterpart who was not demanding or motivated.”

Provide Honest Criticism

Marines have a strong ethic of acknowledging mistakes and trying to learn from them. By contrast, many organizations seem to aspire to be 100 percent error free.


The result is that mistakes are covered up, thus never corrected or learned from.


As noted in Warfighting, “a subordinate’s willingness to admit mistakes depends on the commander’s willingness to tolerate them.” The same kind of openness is essential in a negotiation classroom. [At 35].



Just as soldiers and military strategists must cope with “friction “and the “fog of war, “negotiators have to deal with uncertainty and stress, although the stakes for them are manifestly lower, of course.


Soldiers and negotiators likewise must function in fluid environments. While they must be well prepared, they also must be poised to adapt their tactics and revise their strategy.


Fog, friction, and fluidity are apparent in both deal making and dispute resolution. The techniques of maneuver warfare offer negotiators ways of understanding and managing these dynamics. But many other aspects of maneuver warfare may not line up as cleanly, so the analogy should not be forced beyond its usefulness.


The author concludes with the remark that there is no shame, however, in zealously pursuing an agreement in the face of uncertainty and constant change. Mentally, this requires a high tolerance for ambiguity coupled with initiative and a willingness to take considered risks. Strategically, it suggests a constantly adaptive approach, one that tests, probes, learns, and, when need be, adjusts.


Readers of this article without a military background may find the analogy between warfare and negotiation somewhat academic.


However, those with experience in crises negotiation may in all probability identify with the comparative analysis between the concepts of warfare and negotiation as well as the similarities identified and discussed by the author.


Those tasked with the drafting of negotiation training programs may find it useful.



Johann Scheepers

January 26, 2019





Copyright reserved by the writer.  No part of this article/guide may be reproduced, without prior written permission of the author.


The content of this article/summary is intended to be general in substance and nature; to provide commentary on contemporary issues and where appropriate constitutes a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about the reader’s specific circumstances.


The commentary expressed herein is that of the writer and not that of any professional organization or entity with which the writer may be associated with.





















Views: 997


You need to be a member of ADRhub - Creighton NCR to add comments!

Join ADRhub - Creighton NCR

@ADRHub Tweets

ADRHub is supported and maintained by the Negotiation & Conflict Resolution Program at Creighton University


© 2024   Created by - Creighton NCR.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service