Turning rivals into allies

Getting along with the right people may be the deciding factor in business for getting a promotion, being successful in a (new) venture or restoring a certain reputation. However, not everybody ticks the way you do. In fact, some people may even try to make your life more difficult. So, when it comes to opponents, you can basically choose to ignore them, to fight them or to bury the hatchet and to turn them into allies. If you feel that you gain more with the last option, here are a few tips for how you can do so:

1. Get closer

Unless you are competing over resources and world domination with Sauron, Skynet and Darkseid, remember that your opponents are human: they are as vulnerable as you are; they have things they like and people they respect. Try to find out more about them by observing and communicating directly with them or through your network. Some suggestions:

  • Sit next to them in a meeting and engage in small talk.
  • Observe the things they react to: what do they appreciate, what is a red flag for them?
  • Ask people whose opinion you value. What do they appreciate about your challenger?

    The observations you make will be useful for the next steps and open up opportunities to work with each other instead of against each other.

2. Think about your course of action

Rivals work against your interests to advance their self-interest. If their self-interest changes, your rival could turn into an ally or a partner. Before deciding on the right course of action, take some time to think:

  • What does she want? What are her needs, values and criteria for success?
  • How does your success interfere with hers?
  • What can you do to change this?

3. Approach your opponent

In his classic How to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie explains that people do things for their own reasons, not for your reasons. Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap in their HBR article describe the following framework for approaching an enemy:

  • Describe your needs and goals by explaining where you see conflicting areas or different priorities between the two of you.
  • Ask for their perspective and align your goals with their needs and desires. What can you accomplish together that would be difficult for each of you to try on your own? Discuss a solution: What can you do from your side? What can they do from their side?

This may not be as simple as described. Here are a few suggestions for how to react in different scenarios:

  • If the other party asks you to accept a solution that does not satisfy your needs or implies adhering to a very different belief system than yours, you can at least agree that you disagree.
  • If they haven’t shown their cards yet, perhaps you still need to build trust. So, let them get to know you better and show them that you trust them first by sharing information or offering help.
  • If your adversary resorts to hostile actions or psychological pressure, treat them as enemies. Find out where they are vulnerable and use power.

4. Use the power game

Help them make a mistake

How can you use your expertise or authority to make yourself indispensable? Is there any information that you can withhold? Can you win over their allies, team members or network so they can provide you with useful information?

Show your enemies that the power game doesn’t scare you. Stay calm and ask for signs of cooperation, not submission. As long as you stay in control of your emotions and don’t let your emotions control you, you can prevent people from getting hurt by your actions.

Show your Champions

Some people respect us for our character and actions. Some fear us for our friends and network. Who has your back? Who opens doors for you? Don’t miss an opportunity to show whose power you borrow.

5. Be gracious and use praise

If your adversaries are worthy of you, they will have their victories. Praise them for their effort and congratulate them on their success. Being gracious shows strength of character and demonstrates your readiness to cooperate rather than compete. Finding out more about them will allow you to focus on things you know matter to them and will therefore reach them on an emotional level. It also invites them to return the praise when the opportunity arises or to offer their help. By then you will know whether you have made any progress with your efforts to turn them into allies.

6. See your rival as a gift

Sometimes, friends are just “too polite” about our strengths and weaknesses. Rivals, critics and adversaries may (deliberately or involuntarily) offer invaluable feedback about where we need to improve.

Opponents may be allies with different agendas waiting to be discovered. Therefore, make sure you aren’t discouraged by their initial hostilities and search for common ground. Find out about their needs, their goals, and their weak spots. Invite them to cooperate, share sincere praise for their achievements, and at the same time, demonstrate your power. People tend to cooperate when they realise they have more to gain than lose – both individually and as a team.