Tough situation? Try “becoming the adversary”



In The Five Rings, there is a section entitled “Becoming the Adversary”, in which Miyamoto Musashi writes that “…you should think of yourself in the place of the opponent.”

It’s an often-used trope in detective movies and TV shows that “to catch a criminal, you have to think like a criminal”.  This is certainly one form of “becoming the adversary”.


However, Musashi writes specifically about this in situations when your opponent seems to be in a position of power: “…if you convince yourself that the enemy is strong, you will think it a very serious matter to attack them.” An army barricaded in a castle may seem, from outside, to hold a position of strength, but in fact they are trapped. They have limited supplies, and replenishments could be cut off at any time.


“OK,” you may think, “I’m not a detective, and I’m not laying any sieges these days. What’s this ‘becoming the adversary’ got to do with me?”


While you may not be a detective or a soldier, I guarantee you have “adversaries” of some kind in your life, and that you probably often “convince yourself” that they are more difficult to overcome than they really are.  In fact, “becoming the adversary” is a technique that I’ve found, in both martial arts and daily life, to be a very useful one to apply. When another person seems to be in a position of power over you, simply imagine yourself in their position.  What are their motivations, limitations, and weaknesses? Get inside their skin.  Ultimately, he or she is just another human being, like yourself.


Let’s say you are making some relatively significant purchase, and are negotiating a price. It may feel to you on some level like the seller has the upper hand: he or she has the product you want to have, and ultimately gets to decide how much money they will accept for it.  However, if you  “become the adversary” you will find that they have many weaknesses.  Do they work on commission?  Do they have a quota to meet?  Often you may find that looking the person in the eye with the feeling that you have been in their shoes, and simply asking, “What’s the absolute best you can do?” is very effective.


Or maybe you’re negotiating with your boss for a raise or better position. The same idea applies.  What is her situation?  She seems to be in power, but chances are she too has a boss, and a whole host of requirements on her to deal with herself.  What is she trying to get done?  Does she have limited resources? If you’re doing your job well, chances are you are more crucial to her than you may realize.


… if you always have good soldiers… and know without a doubt that you will beat the enemy, there is nothing in your path to worry about at all.


In your daily life, your “good soldiers” are solid skills and good information. You must cultivate these both, just as an effective general must cultivate the troops under his command. If you keep your skills (of all kinds) polished, and your information current, there is nothing to fear; you have simply to believe that you will succeed, and pursue that success.


Of course, the skill of using your imaginative powers to put yourself in another’s place is not limited in its application to situations where there seems to be a difference in power.  Developing this ability also leads to greater empathy.  The next time you are having an argument with a significant other, spouse, family member, or even just a friend or acquaintance – when they have become an “opponent” themselves – try “becoming the adversary.” It doesn’t even need to be an adversarial relationship, in fact: as a teacher, I’ve found that employing this technique allows me to communicate with my students much more effectively (admittedly, the relationship can be adversarial at times!).


Also, try doing this not just on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional and even physical level: try to really imagine what it feels like to be that person. What emotions are they feeling? How does it feel physically to inhabit their body?  The more you do this, the better you will get at it.  The effects may surprise you.


Here’s a challenge for you:  this week, make “Become the Adversary” your mantra. Tape it to your cell phone.  Write it on your hand. Set a HabitForge reminder every day. In any situation where you encounter friction with another person, try to imagine yourself in the place of your “opponent”: intellectually, emotionally, and physically.


Again, I think you may be surprised by the results. What do you think?  We all do this to some extent, especially when  empathizing with people we like, but have you tried actively doing this with an “adversary”, especially one who seems to be in a superior position?


Still image from Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki

Photo Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

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