Know Your Counterparty

The more things change, the more they stay the same. From the dawn of humanity, we have been social creatures who achieve great things through collective effort. Whether the situation is cooperative (personal relationships), adversarial (war), or mix of the two (business), we have to deal with other people who have their own agendas.

Most people fixate too much on what they want and neglect the needs of the people around them. Pop culture glorifies “strong leaders” who bully, bluff, trick, cajole, and will their way to success. They might get what they want in the short term, but their willfulness often backfires in the long term by generating resentment and opposition.


Rather than just having things my way, I prefer building long term value through relationships and honest dealing. That’s why my first priority in any negotiation is to figure out what everybody else wants. Some people want fame and publicity, while others are eager for privacy. Some value predictability while others want flexibility. It’s true that most people want more money rather than less, but don’t make the mistake of assuming other people want the same things you do. In deals and relationships, money isn’t everything, so you better listen to what else your counterparts are looking for.

Being responsive to other people’s desires is a great life strategy. If I can give people what they want, they’re usually very cooperative in helping me get what I want. The way to do this is simple. Spend time with people and pay attention to what they communicate. Don’t be afraid to ask people what they want. How can I help you and what’s your ideal outcome are two of my favorite questions. I have found that when I really listen to people, they will generally tell me who they are and what they want.

This all applies even more in personal relationships. The more sensitive we are to the goals of our friends, family, and partners, the more they can trust and rely upon us. As they value us more, they can become more responsive to our wants. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that makes for a happier life.

The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu said that if you know yourself and know your enemy, you need never fear the result of a hundred battles. His treatise on strategy, The Art of War, is still studied around the globe — and not just at war colleges — because insight into human nature is timeless. No matter our goal, understanding other people improves our odds of success. If we can anticipate hostile actions, then we can prepare for them. When we give partners what they want, they try to give us what we want. When we’re responsive to other people, they respect and appreciate us more.

Life and business are not the same as an ancient battlefield, but Sun Tzu’s wisdom is still helpful. Knowing the person across the table can tell us when to engage and when to walk away; when to press an advantage and when to yield. If you share my preference for long term value over short term “wins” then listening to and accommodating the desires of counter parties is an essential skill.

Subscribe to our commercial real estate newsletter.