How Do You Build a Golden Bridge?
The phrase “Golden Bridge” comes from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who twenty five hundred years ago wrote a book called The Art of War. He talked about building your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across. In negotiation I would reframe that positively as a golden bridge for both of you to advance across.
In other words, what often happens in difficult conflicts is that when we’ve got an idea, we tend to push the other side. We tend to try and put pressure on them. Of course the more pressure you put on someone, what do they instinctively do? They resist. So unless you’re much more powerful than them, you’re in a standoff. What you find successful negotiators do is attract. Instead of making it harder for the other side, they try to make it easier for the other side to make the decision that they would like them to make.
In a difficult negotiation, it’s almost as if your mind is here and the other side’s mind might be over there. You’re here and you’re saying to them, “Come on over to my position. Come over to where I am.” But if you put yourself in their shoes for a moment, it’s not so easy for them to go where you’d like them to go. It’s almost like there’s a canyon – a Grand Canyon or a chasm – of dissatisfaction and anxiety: Am I going to look like a sellout? Am I going to look weak? What am I going to say to my people?
It’s not easy for them to move where you’d like them to move, so it’s incumbent upon us to leave where our minds are for a moment, begin the conversation over there where they are, and build them a golden bridge over that chasm. Make it as easy as possible for them to move in the direction you’d like them to move.
I’ll give you a very simple example that comes from the film producer Steven Spielberg. He recounts that when he was about 13, there was a bully who was 15 in his class, who beat him up and made his life pure hell for an entire year. He would run home from school, dive under his bed and call out “Safe!” – until one day he asked himself, “How do I get this bully off my back?”
He went up to the bully one day and said (because even then he was making home movies), “You know, I’m making a home movie about fighting the Nazis and I was wondering if you’d like to play the war hero?” The bully laughed in his face, but a couple days later he came back and said OK. So young Spielberg took him and dressed him up in fatigues and a backpack, the whole works, and made him the war hero in his movie. And after that he reports that the bully who beat him up for an entire year became his best friend.
So the question is what’s the logic? What’s the psychological logic by which a bully gets transformed into a best friend? Why does a bully bully? And bullies aren’t only found in the school yard; they’re found in the larger world, unfortunately. What’s a bully looking for? Attention. Control. Power. Respect. Bullying, interestingly, doesn’t come from a feeling of security; it comes from a feeling of insecurity. So what does Spielberg do? He asks himself what resources does he have to meet what turned out to be basic human needs. And in doing so, he transforms the bully into his best friend.
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