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To burst a balloon, you must first inflate it

The 36 stratagems - 16 - Loosen the grip to tighten it later

2022 May 05 | by Arduino Mancini Stratagems to succeed

The stratagem I’m going to present to you is from the book The 36 stratagems, a Chinese masterpiece that can be of interest to anyone involved in conflict situations: in business, politics and private life.


Description of the stratagem

When the opponent is under pressure and feels he has no way out, there is a definite danger that he will use all his reserves of energy to put up fierce resistance.

In this case, it may be convenient to give him a way out, inducing him to lower his guard and thus creating the conditions for a more favourable confrontation: in essence, it is not wise to make the opponent feel a very strong pressure.

Letting him go‘ is not the goal, but it may help to achieve the non-immediate purpose of ‘catching him‘: the stratagem aims to ‘tighten’ the grip, while ‘loosening’ it is the means to achieve the goal.

Allowing the adversary at least a thread of hope will diminish his determination to engage in a battle for life: because a cornered mouse with no way out may come to bite the cat.

Its literal translation is the following:

If the enemy is cornered, he will fight back desperately, letting the enemy flee can weaken his momentum. When chasing, follow the enemy closely and do not force it too much, to consume its physical strength and disintegrate its fighting spirit. Wait until the enemy’s morale is depressed and defeated, then surround and destroy it, to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

The stratagem can be applied in two different situations:

  • The opponent still has a lot of energy, and it is wise to avoid a fight that could end up being bloody. In this case, it is better to pretend to be weak so that his attention will diminish and his ardour in the fight will be limited. Later, when he will have used up at least part of his energy and is less concerned with the potential dangers, then favourable conditions may arise;
  • When we have the situation firmly in our grasp, we need to consider both the positive aspects and the possible evolutions of the favourable situation to develop options which ensure success with a limited effort.

Based on what we have said so far, it is clear that the opponent’s state of mind is a crucial variable: we will explore this aspect in more detail by analysing the key factors of the stratagem.


Type of stratagem according to the original classification

The stratagem is one of those used to achieve a victory by planning the attack well in advance; carefully monitoring the situation, minimizing the exposure, inducing the adversary to consume his energy and then attacking him at the most favourable moment.


Historical example of application

During the Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280) Zhuge Liang (Prime Minister of Shu, often remembered as the greatest military strategist of his era) employed this stratagem to put down the rebellion of the non-Chinese people in the south.

The king of the rebels was a man named Meng Huo, whom Zhuge Liang ordered his troops to capture alive at the earliest opportunity as they advanced south.

After a fierce battle, Meng Huo was captured and brought before Zhuge Liang. The latter led the prisoner on a tour of the camp, after which he asked him: “What do you think about my army?”.

“You defeated me because I didn’t understand your battle plan in time,” replied Meng Huo, “but now that you have been so kind to show me, I will certainly win the next battle”. Zhuge Liang laughed and commented, “Very interesting. That’s fine, let him go!”

Thereafter, Meng Huo was captured six times and six times released.

At the seventh defeat and consequent capture, the brave Meng Huo felt he had lost; when Zhuge Liang was about to let him go free again, the prisoner said, “Your lordship is truly like a god. We Southerners will not rebel anymore”.

Meng Huo’s example was crucial because through it Zhuge Liang was able to overcome the resistance of all the tribes in southern China, who saw no further reason to fight.


Modern examples of application

This is a stratagem that is quite widely used in organizations, business, politics, war and private life; here are some examples.

Organizational environment

An application that I have witnessed in the case of a salesperson with modest talent and expertise who was requesting to manage a client portfolio of great complexity: far greater than he was able to cope with.

In the previous two years, the sales manager had spent a lot of energy developing the team member and improving his disappointing performance: without success.

The team member refused to accept that his results were modest and continued to use alibis to justify his disappointing performance.

So, the sales manager took the opportunity to “loosen his grip”: he assigned him a rather demanding client portfolio, monitoring every action very closely and at the same time giving him the feeling of extensive delegation.

The salesman soon found himself in great difficulty and was forced to throw in the towel, since the importance of the portfolio assigned did not allow him to hide the poor results; at that point the sales manager was able to “tighten his grip”, helping him to acknowledge the hard reality that forces a salesman who does not sell to leave the company.

Here is another rather sophisticated example of the application of the stratagem in the organizational context.

In the cartoon, Mario and his colleague refer to Harry as a person who is not very punctual (“he is always late for everything”) and equally uncooperative (“as soon as he can, he puts a spoke in our wheels”): in short, a person such as is not uncommon in companies.

What you expect is that during the meeting Mario will blame his colleague for both, lack of punctuality and cooperation: an effort to bring about a change in his/her behaviour suggested by common sense, which many of us would adopt.

What are the chances for a successful attempt?

How many times have you succeeded in getting a person to change simply by asking him/her to do so?

I candidly confess that my results have not been brilliant.

Instead, Mario decides to praise Harry for the qualities he does NOT display, that is, he ‘loosens the grip to tighten it’.

What result can this stratagem achieve?

Let’s look at some of them:

  • Harry, aware of his lack of cooperation, may be surprised by Mario’s attitude. Why does the colleague praise him publicly? It is possible that Harry feels uncovered; it is unlikely that he will ask Mario for details because this would imply an admission of the intentional behaviour. It is more likely that Harry will find it harder to keep an uncooperative attitude in the future;
  • Harry is so self-absorbed that he is not aware of his behaviour; he may therefore not be surprised by Mario’s stratagem and collect the praise. Therefore, Harry may be influenced by Mario’s praise, especially if repeated, and change his behaviour to continue enjoying his colleague’s praise. The worst that can happen is that nothing changes;
  • What will the colleagues who witness the unbelievable praise perceive? The initial irritation towards Mario will likely be replaced by an amused sharing: praise that strikes, more than a punch.

In the end, Mario’s stratagem only runs the risk of having no effect, while it is very likely to induce a change in Harry’s behaviour.

In short, if you want to make a balloon burst, you first have to inflate it.


Loosening the grip to tighten it is a stratagem rather used in coalitions between political parties when one of the allies gives space to the other by letting him undertake unpopular initiatives, which in time could lead to a loss of consensus.

In business

Use of the stratagem similar to that viewed in politics may be found in the conflict that may affect company management when making strategic choices; in this case, it may happen that one side does not oppose a wrong decision, with the result that the other side might be weakened or even excluded from management.


The use of the stratagem is quite widespread in competitive negotiation and follows different strategies:

  • pretending to be not interested in the topic of negotiation (loosening one’s grip…) to convince the other party to change his/her position and make it closer to the one we are ready to accept (… to tighten it);
  • during negotiations, switch frequently between threats and cooperation. When the offer of cooperation follows a threat experienced by the adversary with concern, it generates in the opponent a relief, an easing of tension and a higher readiness to concede. It is important to note that the succession of threats and offers stresses the opponent, who must constantly adapt to changes in the scenario;
  • When the negotiation is at a standstill, loosening the grip may mean that the opponent, in a situation where he feels less pressure, relaxes and is more willing to look for shared solutions that are more advantageous to us.

Armed conflict or cold war

Also, in this case, the succession of threats and cooperation is used to weaken the adversary’s energies, making him/her use up his resources to adapt to the evolving scenarios; these communication techniques are well known and widely used to undermine political consensus in the opponent’s field.

Indeed, those directly involved in the conflict (military, politicians, intelligence, etc.) are familiar with the practice of ‘loosening the grip to tighten it’ by employing well-worded messages, but the public may feel disoriented, endangered, tired and less supportive of government action.

In love

The old proverb that ‘In love, the winner is the one who flees’ testimonies the importance of the stratagem in the life of a couple; leaving your partner the vital space that is essential to enjoy life together is perhaps the most successful recipe for a lasting love relationship. And if the stratagem of ‘loosening the grip to tighten it’ were more widely adopted, the number of women who lost their lives would be significantly lower.

With children

Have you ever tried to force a child to do something it does not want to do? Forcing them to act in an unwanted direction is the best way to generate resistance and not achieve the expected result, except by force. For this reason, it is advisable to present the situation to children in a light that allows them to see a free choice in the action they are asked to take.


Key factors in the implementation of the stratagem

There are four main variables: patience, the flow of information, the opponent’s state of mind and his desire to take action in a chosen direction.

Patience is a crucial factor; we need to work on generating conditions that involve limited use of resources and wait for them to come about; it is active patience, oriented towards monitoring the evolution of the situation, identifying potential risks and dealing with them in time.

The information flow is essential because the perception that the opponent will have of the “loosening of the grip” depends on it; his perception of the situation must be the one we want and, above all, it must lead him/her to move in the direction we want.

The state of mind needs to be kept under careful control, since the opponent must not perceive that he/she is trapped; should this happen, his/her reaction could be uncontrolled and generate losses for us that could be heavy.

Last but not least, is the free will to act. Once the grip is loosened, the opponent must feel that he is taking deliberate, never prompted, action.


Strategies to face the stratagem

The stratagem presents a certain level of risk.

If your opponent perceives that the loosening may be followed by a tightening of the grip, he may decide to flee, adopting the thirty-sixth stratagem, or concentrate on recovering his strength to counterattack.

Moreover, a rapid alternation of actions aimed at loosening the grip to tighten it, or of concessions and threats in the case of negotiation, may lead to discovering the stratagem and make the opponent flee.

It is vital, in facing the stratagem, to analyze the situation and recognize if we are still in the condition to prevail or if it is not convenient to abandon the conflict; in any case, it will be better to take every opportunity to recover the strength necessary to face the next challenge in the best condition.

Here are some questions that may prove helpful as you analyze the situation:

  • Why is my opponent loosening his grip?
  • Where does he want to go? What is his goal?
  • Why is the opponent switching between a friendly and a threatening attitude?
  • Will the loosening of the grip be followed by a tightening? How will it appear?
  • Should I continue to fight? Or should I flee?


A final thought

The stratagem has many positive and desirable applications, especially in private life, which we should learn and implement.

In addition, when you are in trouble you may lose focus on the situation and think you can still catch up, fooling yourself that you can do it.

Don’t forget that the person who adopts this stratagem is already in a position of advantage: acknowledging with brutal honesty that in this situation you have no chance of prevailing will help you to make a retreat that might allow you to regain your strength and start again.

Or simply desist, saving your life.

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