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Find out why a knife is not necessarily used to hurt

THE 36 STRATAGEMS - 10 - Hide a knife behind a smile

2022 August 10 | by Arduino Mancini Senza categoria - 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.


Literal translation

Try to convince the enemy that we are friendly, so that they would let down their guard; in the meantime, we secretly plan something, be actively prepared, and wait for opportunities, preventing the enemy from having time to detect the plan and take contingency measures. Strong from the inside and supple on the outside.


Type of stratagem according to the original classification

The stratagem is included among those employed to resist the opponent. This type of stratagem includes tactics usually employed for defensive actions, i.e. when one wants to prevent an opponent from launching an offensive or when wanting to oppose it. Like any well-executed defence, it can lead to prevailing, even in the short term.


Interpretation of the stratagem

The stratagem consists of inspiring confidence in the opponent and taking action when his guard is down, in order to seize him unprepared.

It takes its origin from political and military conflict, in which it is imperative to deceive and neutralize the enemy through cunning that can conceal the attack, which will be sudden and decisive; in essence, maintain a friendly attitude, prepare a plan and then act unexpectedly, preventing the enemy from having time to change his trustful attitude.

While the stratagem originally denoted double-crossing, a peaceful attitude that concealed hostile intentions, today the range of applications is significantly broader; it may come as a surprise that the intentions of the person employing the ruse may generate an advantage for the victim.

Here are two interpretations that complement the traditional one:

  • Helping someone rise from a difficult situation (smile) to protect one’s interests (knife);
  • Influencing a person’s view (knife) by showing an acceptable and desired aspect of the situation (smile) to take action in his/her interests.

Below we will see several situations that exemplify the three interpretations.


Historical example of application

During the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280 AD) Guan Yu, general of the state of Shu, was in charge of Ching province and commander of the town of Jiangling, an important centre for controlling the Yangtse River.

Lü Meng, a general and politician serving Sun Quan, King of Wu, realized that Guan Yu was preparing to move north to attack the fortress of Fancheng, south of the Wei kingdom; to achieve his goal Guan Yu would have had to reduce the troops defending Jiangling, which would thus had become more vulnerable.

That would have been, for Lü Meng, the right time to attack Jiangling.

But Guan Yu was no fool; he was aware that Lü Meng, whom he held in great esteem, might try to seize the city. Therefore, while moving the army toward Fancheng, he took care to leave Jiangling very well guarded: a direct attack was unlikely to succeed.

It was then that Sun Quan sent to Lukou (the city from which the attack was to start) Lu Xun, a young strategist, who was recommended by Lü Meng when he pretended to retire from the position of commander; he was the only general really feared by Guan Yu.

It was Lu Xun himself who took over the post of commander; as his first action, he sent Guan Yu rich gifts and a flattering letter in which he hoped to improve the relationship between the two states. From that moment Guan Yu thought himself safe; he reduced Jiangling’s defences and concentrated his forces on the assault on Fancheng. When spies confirmed to Lu Xun that most of the troops initially defending the city had headed north, Lü Meng secretly returned to the leadership of military operations.

Two decisive events followed.

First, the Wu kingdom arranged an agreement with Wei, who saw the attack on Jiangling as the best defence for the Fancheng fortress; then, Lü Meng organized a surprise attack by disguising warships as trading ships.

He sailed down the Yangtse River to Jiangling and conquered the city without much effort.
Guan Yu withdrew and was later captured and executed by Sun’s forces.


Modern examples of application

In the examples I will present, the application of the stratagem follows the three directions previously mentioned:

  • Inspiring confidence in the enemy to catch him unprepared and act when his guard is down;
  • Helping someone get out of a difficult situation to protect one’s own interests;
  • Influencing a person’s point of view (knife) by showing a desirable and acceptable aspect of the situation so that he/she acts in his/her best interest.

Organizational context

Mario was the sales manager of a company producing semi-finished products for the housing industry.

Having recently joined the company, he had had the pleasure of finding Laura among his colleagues in sales administration; Mario and Laura had worked together in the past and the pleasure of meeting was mutual. Moreover, Mario had the opportunity to appreciate his colleague’s work, which was very accurate in a context where superficiality ruled supreme.

A few months later, Laura expressed her desire to switch to purchasing, since after so many years she felt a need for a new experience; Mario begged her for patience, as her move would have meant serious difficulties for him: however, he did tell her that he understood her motives and pledged to satisfy her wishes within a few months.

Laura willingly agreed. After one week, Mario was called by the CEO, who informed him of the decision to reassign Laura to purchasing, to exactly the desired position, and urged him to pay more attention to the motivation of the key people.

Laura had stepped into the conflict between the CEO and Mario, which had erupted over strategic differences just after the latter’s arrival in the company; while maintaining a relationship marked by cordiality and cooperation, she had been working in the rear to achieve her goal.

Until that time, Mario had had no reason to suspect a hostile attitude from Laura; and Laura never explained to him the reason for her behaviour.


In his case the parties involved pool complementary intangibles, allowing both partners to rely on assets that developing individually would be extremely costly; a case in point is Company A, a market leader in its own country, leveraging Company B’s business network to develop its presence in a different country.

While it is well-known that the success of a partnership depends on the ability of the partners to capitalize on each other’s strengths, it is unlikely that both will be able to resist the temptation to gain control.

To achieve the goal, it is crucial building a trusting relationship; hence, “hiding the knife behind the smile” can be instrumental in getting the partner’s guard down and steering management in the targeted direction, capitalizing on a competitive attitude hidden by collaborative manners.

Business management

Stock market raiders and hedge funds regularly claim to act in the interests of shareholders, to remunerate their invested capital. However, their actions are mainly driven by short-term profit rationale; once successful acquisitions are completed, they proceed to sell the most profitable assets to immediately maximize gains.

“Hiding the knife behind the smile” is a much-practised stratagem in consulting, when, for example, some people may be more interested in generating consensus than in getting results that are helpful to the Client; doing all they can to please, avoiding any conflicts and giving in systematically in case of differences of view, creating good relationships aimed at generating a good revenue stream (see the cartoon strip) are rather frequent practices for them.


Showing appreciation for a political opponent to bring him/her into discredit within the party or create divisions in the same party is a quite widespread tactic. The show of appreciation raises doubts about the behaviour of the person receiving it, with very interesting dynamics (see the “Killing with a borrowed knife” stratagem).


The stratagem’s use in this area can have two different goals; in both cases, the key element is the friendly attitude, that makes the other party let his guard down and feel safe.

Once the climate of trust has been created, the negotiating behaviours can be two, depending on the specific conditions:

  • taking advantage of the situation to achieve the best possible outcome at the expense of the other party’s interests;
  • exploiting the positive climate to induce the other party to assume a cooperative attitude and pursue shared goals.

When the knife does not strike

The Marshall Plan, officially the “European Recovery Program,” was one of the U.S. political-economic plans for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Announced in a speech by Secretary of State George Marshall on June 5, 1947, the plan consisted of an allocation of $13 billion. The U.S. economy had emerged from the war stronger than ever and needed new and larger markets to sustain its growth. With a relatively modest investment, the U.S. seized both economic and political objectives: it developed a vast new market in Europe, with enormous expansion possibilities for its multinational corporations, and it created the conditions for maintaining political stability, which was a check on the expansion of the Soviet Union.

Another case in which the knife does not strike, while providing advantages to its users, is represented by foundations, entities constituted by assets arranged in advance not for profit, which enjoy favourable tax treatment: through this instrument, families and companies that can count on substantial capital give a lot to society, gaining prestige and notoriety in return.

Finally, it may be interesting to observe the banks’ behaviour when faced with companies in serious difficulties: they continue to support the client, possibly securing an appropriate change in management, to reduce the risk of losing the money they lent.

World War II

In 1941, during World War II, Japan decided to take control of the Pacific Ocean. In order not to alert the enemy and unleash a surprise attack, the Japanese government entered into a series of diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. government, apparently to reconcile the interests of the two countries in the Pacific; the purpose was to give the Americans the impression that Japan intended to resolve the dispute through diplomatic channels, while they were preparing to attack Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.

On the Japanese side, the negotiations were handled by the ambassador to the U.S.A. assisted by Saburō Kurusu, a diplomat who had married an American by whom he had three children (two of them born in the U.S.A.).

On December 7, without a war declaration, the Japanese fleet attacked Pearl Harbor by surprise, just as the Japanese diplomat was requesting an audience with the U.S. Secretary of State. The damage inflicted on the Pacific to the American Fleet was heavy and this success allowed Japan to gain temporary control over the ocean, opening the way for further military successes.

In private life

Here are two examples where the stratagem is used to influence people’s views by showing an acceptable and desirable aspect of the situation.

A first example is when we want to convince a person who does not take care of his/her health to undergo a check-up, inducing him/her to reflect on the importance of his/her well-being to the people living next to him/her.

Another example is from the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I summarize below.

Tom has to paint the 75-square meter fence of Aunt Polly’s house; a very tedious task, that he would be happy to skip. But just when he has lost hope of getting out of the job, Tom has a wonderful idea. When his friend Ben approaches to tease him, Tom replies that painting a fence is not a small thing, because finding a fence to paint doesn’t come along every day; the job is so pleasant that when Ben asks him to try a few brushstrokes, Tom refuses. And he relents only when Ben offers him his apple in exchange; pretty soon several other boys show up, and they all end up asking to paint the fence instead of Tom. After Ben, all the fellows not only ask to whitewash, but are willing to pay for trying: by mid-afternoon, the fence has been whitewashed three times and Tom has collected a considerable amount of money.

In essence, stratagem can be applied to give a different structure to communication and the perceived reality, making it appealing and desirable.


Key factors in the implementation of the stratagem

The implementation of the stratagem requires three things: knowledge of the opponent’s psychology, the ability to generate in him/her the trust essential to make him/her let his/her guard down, and the ability to conceal intentions.

The knowledge of the opponent is a key aspect in understanding how we can generate the trust that will make us influence his behaviour. Here are some questions you may find useful to answer:

  • Is he/she responsive to flattery? Does he/she like to be admired and appreciated?
  • Does he/she easily grant trust, or he/she distrust people have known for a short time?
  • How does he/she handle objections? Are they for her/him an opportunity for reflection or a nuisance to be removed?
  • If he/she is responsible for managing people, how does he/she handle dissent in his team?

As for your ability to generate trust, on the other hand, the assessment can be made easier by answering a few questions:

  • How easily can I gain the trust of the people I encounter?
  • Do the people I meet find me likeable? Do they willingly spend time with me?
  • Do I easily pick up others’ confidence? Do they ask me for advice? Do they consider my opinions valuable?

Finally, it is important to consider that the ability to simulate one’s intentions may be undermined by the difficulty of employing it over a long time, because the achievement of goals may not be immediate; and pretending for a long time may become intolerable.


The risks

They are directly related to the management of the key factors we discussed in the previous paragraph.

If you decide to apply the stratagem in situations involving people who are insensitive to flattery, that is, who take a long time before initiating a confidential relationship or who have a cautious attitude toward unknown people, then you may see your efforts sinking into nothing or even suffer damage.

In addition, I recommend you pay attention to the quality of your “smile”; if it will appear not so spontaneous or even instrumental it will arouse mistrust in your opponent: your stratagem could be discovered and generate a tough reaction.

In conclusion, I suggest that you do not underestimate the persistence that may be required to carry out this stratagem, because a simulation protracted for longer than expected could lead to irreparable mistakes.


Strategies to face the stratagem

The first point to watch out for is weaknesses induced by the difficulty of dealing with a specific situation; the need to feel supported may push you to rely on people with whom you do not have a solid relationship and who may decide to profit from it.

Beware of the liking bias, which we analyzed about the thirtieth stratagem (Turning from a guest into a host).

The liking bias is a cognitive mistake whereby we prefer to associate with people who are pleasant because of their appearance and/or close opinion, habits, religion, social class or political ideas; with them, we tend to establish, more easily than others, relationships that lead to open up, ask for help in difficulties and confide insecurities that can be instrumentally employed.

It is therefore important to be cautious about placing trust in people with whom you do not have a solid relationship, because it may expose you to the blade of your opponent.

A key element in coping with the stratagem is represented by the awareness of how vulnerable you are to flattery, which is especially crucial when you are managing a role that involves staff management.

How easy can it be to win your trust by appealing to your need for acknowledgement and esteem? Finding out is not easy, but some questions may help you to know more about your attitude toward flattery:

  • How do you react when a person praises you publicly?
  • Have you ever received praise that was exaggerated or not completely justified? How did you react to it?
  • How often do people you work with, especially your staff, challenge your ideas? Can you name two recent episodes when this occurred?
  • How many people enjoy your unconditional trust? Could you list them?
  • Among the people who enjoy your trust, how many have you met for the first time in the past two years?

A final aspect I recommend you pay attention to is the need for affiliation, which is related to the need to avoid isolation by creating a wide network with individuals from whom we feel we have nothing to fear. In the organizational context, people that feel a need for affiliation tend to develop relationships that are confidential and mutually supportive; they will therefore tend to please bosses and choose staff members among those who do not represent a threat.

In essence, the need for affiliation may drive you to seek refuge in the protective arms of people who hide the blade behind a smile: being aware of this will help you avoid falling into the trap.


A final thought

I suggest that you do not feel any resentment toward those who seem to be criticizing your person or your work; their words are good opportunities to reflect and improve yourself.

Rather, pay attention to those who miss no opportunity to praise you, taking care to avoid any contrast.

How many, among people you habitually meet, behave in this way?

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