CREATE A THREATENING PRESENCE
The best way to fight off aggressors is to keep them from attacking you in the first place. To accomplish this, you must create the impression of being more powerful than you are. Build up a reputation: You are a little crazy. Fighting you is not worth it. You take your adversaries with you when you lose. Create this reputation and make it credible with a few impressive, impressively violent, acts. Uncertainty is sometimes better than overt threat: if your opponents are never sure what messing with you will cost, they will not want to find out. Play on people's natural fears and anxieties to make them think twice. Always remember the first rule of power strategies: Power is not only what you have but what the adversary thinks you have.
Inevitably, in life you will find yourself facing people who are more aggressive than you are, crafty, ruthless people who are determined to get what they want. Fighting them head-on is generally foolish; fighting is what they are good at, and they are unscrupulous to boot. You will probably lose. Trying to fend them off by giving them part of what they are after, or otherwise pleasing or appeasing them, is a recipe for disaster: you are only showing your weakness, inviting more threats and attacks. But giving in completely, surrendering without a fight, hands them the easy victory they crave and makes you resentful and bitter. It can also become a bad habit, the path of least resistance in dealing with difficult situations. Instead of trying to avoid conflict or whining about the injustice of it all, consider another option: reverse intimidation. This art of deterrence rests on three basic facts about conflict and human nature: First, people are more likely to attack you if they see you as weak or vulnerable. Second, they cannot know for sure that you are weak; they depend on the signs you give out, through your behavior both present and past. Third, they are after easy victories, quick and bloodless. That is why they prey on the vulnerable and weak.
Deterrence is simply a matter of turning this dynamic around, altering any perception of yourself as weak and naive and sending the message that battle with you will not be as easy as they had thought. This is generally done by taking some visible action that will confuse aggressors and make them think they have misread you: you may indeed be vulnerable, but they are not sure. You are disguising your weakness and distracting them. Action has much more credibility than mere threatening or fiery words; hitting back, for instance, even in some small, symbolic way, will show that you mean what you say. With so many other people around who are timid and easy prey, the aggressor will most likely back off and move on to someone else.
This form of defensive warfare is infinitely applicable to the battles of daily life. Appeasing people can be as debilitating as fighting them; deterring them, scaring them out of attacking you or getting in your way, will save you valuable energy and resources. To deter aggressors, you must become adept at deception, manipulating appearances and their perceptions of you, valuable skills that can be applied to all aspects of daily warfare. And finally, by practicing the art as needed, you will build for yourself a reputation as someone tough, someone worthy of respect and a little fear. The passive-aggressive obstructionists who try to undermine you covertly will also think twice about taking you on.
The following are five basic methods of deterrence and reverse intimidation. You can use them all in offensive warfare, but they are particularly effective in defense, for moments when you find yourself vulnerable and under attack. They are culled from the experiences and writings of the greatest masters of the art.
Surprise with a bold maneuver
The best way to hide your weakness and to bluff your adversaries into giving up their attack is to take some unexpected, bold, risky action. Perhaps they had thought you were vulnerable, and now you are acting as someone who is fearless and confident. This will have two positive effects: First, they will tend to think your move is backed up by something real, they will not imagine you could be foolish enough to do something audacious just for effect. Second, they will start to see strengths and threats in you that they had not imagined.
Reverse the threat
If your adversaries see you as someone to be pushed around, turn the tables with a sudden move, however small, designed to scare them. Threaten something they value. Hit them where you sense they may be vulnerable and make it hurt. If that infuriates them and makes them attack you, back off a moment and then hit them again when they are not expecting it. Show them you are not afraid of them and that you are capable of a ruthlessness they had not seen in you. You needn't go too far; just inflict a little pain. Send a short, threatening message to indicate that you are capable of a lot worse.
Seem unpredictable and irrational
In this instance you do something suggesting a slightly suicidal streak, as if you felt you had nothing to lose. You show that you are ready to take your adversaries down with you, destroying their reputations in the process; this is particularly effective with people who have a lot to lose themselves, powerful people with sterling reputations. To defeat you will be costly and perhaps self-destructive. This will make fighting you very unattractive. You are not acting out emotionally; that is a sign of weakness. You are simply hinting that you are a little irrational and that your next move could be almost anything. Crazy opponents are terrifying, no one likes fighting people who are unpredictable and have nothing to lose.
Play on people's natural paranoia
Instead of threatening your opponents openly, take action that is indirect and designed to make them think. This might mean using a go-between to send them a message, to tell some disturbing story about what you are capable of. Or maybe you "inadvertently" let them spy on you, only to hear something that should give them cause for concern. Making your adversaries think they have found out you are plotting a countermove is more effective than telling them so yourself; make a threat and you may have to live up to it but making them think you are working treacherously against them is another story. The more veiled menace and uncertainty you generate, the more their imaginations will run away with them and the more dangerous an attack on you will seem.
Establish a frightening reputation
This reputation can be for any number of things: being difficult, stubborn, violent, ruthlessly efficient. Build up that image over the years and people will back off from you, treating you with respect and a little fear. Why obstruct or pick an argument with someone who has shown he will fight to the bitter end? Someone strategic yet ruthless? To create this image, you may every now and then have to play a bit rough, but eventually it will become enough of a deterrent to make those occasions rare. It will be an offensive weapon, scaring people into submission before they even meet you. In any event, you must build your reputation carefully, allowing no inconsistencies. Any holes in this kind of image will make it worthless.
DETERRENCE AND REVERSE INTIMIDATION IN PRACTICE
What matters in any crisis or difficult situation, as in life generally, is not necessarily how strong or resourceful you may be but how people see you. If they think you are weak and vulnerable, they act aggressively, which in and of itself can put you in trouble. If they suddenly think you are strong, or unpredictable, or have hidden resources, they back off and reassess. Getting them to change their plans and treat you more carefully can by itself alter the outcome of the conflict. In any struggle, some things will always be outside your control; you may not be able to put together all your resources or defend all your weak points, but you can always affect people's perceptions of you.
You must take control over people's perceptions of you by playing with appearances, mystifying, and misleading them. Mix audacity with unpredictability and unorthodoxy and act boldly in moments of weakness or danger. That will distract people from any holes in your armor, and they'll be afraid there may be more to you than meets the eye. Then, if you make your behavior hard to read, you will only seem more powerful, since actions that elude interpretation attract attention, worry, and a bit of awe. In this way you will throw people off balance and onto their heels. Kept at a distance, they will be unable to tell how far you are bluffing them. Aggressors will back off. Appearance and perception, you are not someone to mess with, will become reality.
Never be intimidated
When someone attacks you or threatens you, make it clear that he will suffer in return. Make it clear that he or she may be stronger, that they may be able to win battles, but you will make them pay for each victory. Instead of taking them on directly, hurt something they value, something close to home. Make them understand that every time they bother you, they can expect damage, even if on a smaller scale. The only way to make you stop attacking them in your irritating fashion is for them to stop attacking you.
When we are under attack, the temptation is to get emotional, to tell the aggressors to stop, to make threats as to what we'll do if they keep going. That puts us in a weak position: we have revealed both our fears and our plans, and words rarely deter aggressors. Sending them a message through a third party or revealing it indirectly through action is much more effective. That way you signal that you are already maneuvering against them. Keep the threat veiled: if they can only glimpse what you are up to, they will have to imagine the rest. Making them see you as calculating and strategic will have a chilling effect on their desires to harm or attack you. It is not worth the risk to find out what you may be up to.
When someone attacks you or threatens you, always make sure you know more than your opponents: consider statistics, studies, and engineering theories to support your own project and poke holes through theirs. This way, when your opponent will show up in public or meetings with glossy presentations to make fantastic claims to dazzle the audience. listen politely, seem to be impressed, and then suddenly, without warning, go on the offensive, deflating their optimistic claims, showing in detail that the numbers did not add up, revealing the hype and the fakery. Caught in the act of overselling, your opponent loses all credibility. In addition to your network of allies, always make sure to have at least one powerful supporter. If possible, find him in a political or influential environment. Always make sure to think several moves ahead of your opponents, always aiming to surprise them with some terrifying maneuver. Incorporate this strategy into your bureaucratic battles.
In any kind of battle or conflict, reputation is always key. Your own reputation may not be intimidating. After all, most of the time, in any given situation, we all must fit in, play politics, seem nice and accommodating. Most often this works fine, but in moments of danger and difficulty being seen as so nice will work against you: it says that you can be pushed around, discouraged, and obstructed. If you have never been willing to fight back before, no threatening gesture you make will be credible. Understand: there is great value in letting people know that, when necessary, you can let go of your niceness and be downright difficult and nasty. A few clear, violent demonstrations will suffice. Once people see you as a fighter, they will approach you with a little fear in their hearts. And as Machiavelli said, it is more useful to be feared than to be loved.
ONE LAST WORD
The purpose of strategies of deterrence is to discourage attack, and a threatening presence or action will usually do the job. In some situations, though, you can more safely achieve the same thing by doing the opposite: play dumb and unassuming. Seem inoffensive, or already defeated, and people may leave you alone. A harmless front can buy you time. This strategy needs patience, though, and is not without risk: you are deliberately making yourself the lamb among the wolves. In general, you must keep your attempts at intimidation under control.
Be careful not to become intoxicated by the power fear brings. Use it as a defense in times of danger, not as your offense of choice. In the long run, frightening people creates adversaries, and if you fail to back up your tough reputation with victories, you will lose credibility. If your opponent gets angry enough to decide to play the same game back at you, you may also escalate a squabble into a retaliatory war.
Use this strategy with caution.
J. Michael Dennis
Corporate Systemic Strategist