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Persuasion Techniques

(The Ancient Chinese Style)


Formation of a Coalition


Do you remember what you were doing on 11 September, 2001 when four airplanes crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington DC and onto the open field of Pennsylvania, all within a matter of hours?  These crashes were not accidents.  They were part of a well thought out, long term schemes designed by the fanatic terrorist organization called Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, to attack the United States (US).  Thousands of innocent people were killed, including many foreign nationals.

The whole world was awakened by the tragedy.  We were forced to face the reality that we were living in a different geopolitical situation, in a different era.  Within a short time, a coalition declaring “War on Terror” was formed, led by the US, joined by its strong allies and many other nations.  One of the main factors for the sweeping success in the formation of the coalition was the common concern of terror attacks. The attacks on the US homeland made it clear to other nations that their homelands were just as vulnerable.  The coalition’s combined military forces acted and brought down the tyrannical Taliban regime of Afghanistan, liberating the Afghans from oppression.

Further developments against terrorism evolved  to the “War on  Iraq”.  Again, led by the US and the United Kingdoms (UK), for Saddam Hussein’s continuous violation of, or inaction to, the United Nations’(UN) Resolutions to disarm all of Iraq’s nuclear and mass destruction weapons.  At this juncture, the US and the UK met resistance from a number of council members of the UN, in relation to forming a coalition against Iraq.  This time, the major difference is the lack of common concern.  Instead, many nations took in the consideration of their own self-interests (financial, geopolitical,  national politics,  personal sentiments held by certain heads of state towards the US, and the like) and therefore they would not agree that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the world.

How is a coalition formed?  Through covert diplomatic channels: dignitaries, including the heads of state, would meet and confer, trying to influence the involved nations by logical reasoning, by weighing the risks and consequences (whether ‘for’ or ‘against’ the proposal), by balancing the advantages against the disadvantages; by negotiations, and so on.  Generally, these dignitaries are skillful in persuasions.  Utilizing “diplomatic channels” is not a unique modern instrumentality; rather, it had been widely used in ancient times.  For example, let’s go back about 2400 years, to the land of China, to look at how Su Qin took full advantage of the diplomatic channels to reach his goal--to get six states to form a coalition.


Su Qin is a legendary persuader in Chinese History.  In 1973, artifacts were discovered from a Han Dynasty tomb in Hunan Province, China.  Among these artifacts are the “Warring States’ Zhong-Heng Strategists Books”, containing Su Qin’s writing on persuasion techniques.


Chinese History (A Brief Overview from 1027 to 221 BC)


          Circa 1027 BC, Emperor Wu of the Zhou Dynasty founded a feudal society.  He granted land, its residents and sovereignty to his loyal supporters who helped him overthrow the Shang Dynasty.  These small state rulers were called the feudal lords (hereafter lords).  Later, the regime of Emperor Cheng, Wu’s son, granted land and sovereignty to more lords.

From 770-476 BC (the Spring and Autumn Period), the power of the Zhou Dynasty was in decline.  Many of the roughly 150 lords of the time had stopped paying homage to the Emperor.  They fought against each other, trying to expand their own power and land.  From 475-221 BC (the Warring States Period), the number of major lords was reduced to seven.  Something of significant influence occurred during these two Periods: different schools of philosophy (Taoism, Yin-Yang, Confucianism, Legalism, and so on) and strategy (military and political) developed and flourished.  Many philosophers and strategists would travel from state to state, trying to persuade the lords to adopt their theories and counsel, and offer them high official posts in return.


Zhong-Heng Strategy—(Political or Diplomatic Strategy)  


The Zhong strategy was used to persuade the lords of the six weaker states to form a coalition against the strongest and most aggressive state “Qin”, while the Heng strategy was used to disconnect and isolate the six weaker states, and to force their submission to “Qin”.

Su Qin was a political strategist.  He spent a few years traveling among the states, trying to present his strategy to the lords, but to no avail.  He was broke and had to go home where he was met with rejection from his parents, wife and sister-in-law.  Ashamed, he became even more determined to persuade the lords to use his strategy.  For over a year, he locked himself up in his room, to re-study the ancient books on stratagems.  He came to realize that the main reason for his failure was his lack of understanding of the changing circumstances surrounding the states, and more importantly, he did not grasp the true intentions of the lords.

This awakening made him focus on how to deal with the human factors and the psychological make-up of the lords.  He researched and mulled over each state’s condition and ability to defend against any aggressive attacks by the other states, especially, “Qin”.  He developed the techniques on how to accurately appraise the true intentions of the lords: to share with them his knowledge and strategy on how to cope with each state’s imminent concerns and its long-term interest of living in peace.


Su Qin set forth five essential principles to ensure a successful mission:

1.  Know yourself well.  Set clear goals.  Must fully deliberate, scrutinize and define your strategy in detail, with options to deal with potential contingencies.  Must know the lord equally well. [Discovery]

2.      Must share similar political ideologies with the lord. [Mutual concerns]

3.      The proposal must be flexible and responsive to the ebb and flow of any circumstantial changes.  Study the outside world around the lord and his state vigilantly. [Totality of circumstances]

4.      If the “climate-conditions” are not suitable, wait for an opportune moment. [Patience]

5.      The proposal must aim at helping the lord to avoid disasters and misfortunes, and to advance the welfare of his state. [Satisfy his needs and interests]


          Su Qin set his goal: to unite the six weaker states against “Qin” (the Zhong Strategy).  He concentrated on searching for the true intentions of the lords so as to evaluate their readiness, willingness and ability to adopt his strategy. [Voluntary]


Persuasion Techniques


          Su Qin combined the Yin-Yang and Open-Close theories as his central approach.


Yin (represents the negatives: close, dark, weakness, evilness, and the like;) and Yang (represents the positives: open, light, strength, goodness, and the like;) are the two opposite energies that created all things in the Universe. (Yin-Yang philosophy.)

In olden times, the sages looked for visible signs of Yin and Yang to differentiate the proper ways of handling the on-going events.  If the sign indicated Yang, they would take vigorous actions to achieve their goals.  If the sign leaned towards Yin, they would stop all actions and wait for the situation to evolve, unfold and to show a different sign.

          Su Qin believed that a man’s mouth was the door to his mind, and that all his aspirations, desires, thoughts and wisdom would enter into and exit from his mind through his mouth/door.  The door could be opened or closed, for the in-flow and out-flow of all the information in one’s mind.  This Yin-Yang and Open-Close technique was crucial in fishing for the true words and intentions of the lords (correlatively hereafter, counterparts) and to earn their trust, particularly important during the initial meetings. [Caucuses]


Use your key to open the doors of your counterparts.  Once opened, let them talk freely, to reveal their thoughts, interests, concerns, expertise, inner emotions, and so on, unsuspectingly.

When your counterparts talk, close your own door and listen quietly, patiently and attentively. [Active listener]

Examine the contents of your counterparts’ speeches.  If they incline towards Yin, you should tactfully close their doors and change the topic; if they interact with Yang, you should show your support and encourage them to speak more. [Common interests]

Simultaneously, “listen” to your counterparts’ unspoken words: their facial expressions, demeanor, movements, gestures, and so on, to seek out their inner intentions and physical conditions. [Body language]

Generally, when people experience a deep or sudden shift of emotions, their outward behavior will naturally reflect the same.  Maintain a keen eye at all time to capture the moments of your counterparts’ inner emotional disruptions.  When they are high-spirited, join them gleefully and steer them to talk about their visions.  When they are worried, offer them your condolences empathetically, and guide them to disclose their fears.  When they are in their normal mood, let them speak casually about their daily life, diets, hobbies, and the like. [Be empathetic]

          When applied interchangeably and/or concurrently, this combined Yin-Yang and Open-Close theory would let you profit from unlimited variations of needed adjustments. [Be creative]


          Su Qin also employed the Yin-Yang philosophy to categorize types of people and events.


Yin people have the characteristics of being emotional, insecure, tense, troubled, cold, unkind and so on.  When speaking to the Yin people, point out all the disadvantages, the weaknesses and the ill effects pertinent to their intentions, in microscopic description.  Caveat -- Your goal of using this technique is to influence your counterparts to foreclose their original schemes and to accept your strategy, therefore, this Yin technique must be executed discreetly so that they will not feel disgraced. [Confidentiality]

Yang people have the characteristics of being rational, confident, relaxed, calm, warm, kind and so on.  When speaking to the Yang people, point out all the advantages of your proposal in breadth, to compliment their positions and authorities, and the realistic measure of success in adopting your strategy. [Facilitate]


          Su Qin consciously chose matching style of speech to please different personalities.


Begin with special attention to your counterparts’ temperament.  Polish your speech to suit their interests. When responding to their questions, use quick and sharp words to make your discussion more appealing.  Be coherent when expressing your principles.  Use logical analysis to clarify established facts conforming to your strategy.

          Exchange of arguments with your counterparts will bring you back to the previous point(s) for more refined discussion.  This process will expose the hidden minor issues that ought to be addressed and resolved without delay. [Underlying issues]

          Use congratulatory words to demonstrate your loyalty.  Use rhetoric, exemplifications and ornate phrases to enhance your image of a sagacious person.  Use unwavering language to reiterate your valiant personality.  Use speech reflecting your deep concern for different defensive tactics to protect your counterparts’ power and images.  Use ‘silence’ (take time out) to re-examine your speech style, to fill the ‘holes’ in your speech, to re-address your strategy to overcome their arguments, and to impress them that you are a winner, unafraid.


Su Qin tailored his style of speech to suit people with different levels of intelligence.


Always use gracious speech to show your sincerity and respect for your counterparts.  Support your strategy with quotes and historical events when speaking to intelligent counterparts.  Impress experienced and knowledgeable counterparts by showing your ability to distinguish and analyze the developments of past and current happenings.  If your counterparts have an analytical mind, get to the essence of the matter with reasoned and direct speech.  To wealthy counterparts, stress nobility and honor.  Use determinant and powerful speech to make fearless counterparts more resolute.  Enlighten stupid and careless counterparts with keen and harsh words.


          Immediately after having spoken to a lord, Su Qin would spend time on introspection.


This step is indispensable because whenever your counterparts resist your suggestion verbally or nonverbally, you must re-examine your approach, go back to the Yin-Yang and Open-Close theory, to find out what is troubling them.

In order to guide your counterparts to follow your direction of discussion, you must be patient and do the unexpected inconspicuously: if you want to expand, you must restrain yourself; if you want to climb high, you must begin at the low ground; if you want to receive, you must give first. [Compromise]


          Su Qin would then continue in dialogue with the lord by inducing the method of reversal of position. [Put yourself in another’s shoes]


          Put yourself in your counterparts’ positions: to observe and study the relevant matters from their points of view.  The next step is to slip into their bodies and minds.  Once inside their minds, you can see their thought processes clearly; when inside their bodies, you can feel their emotions and physical conditions.  This process will be helpful for you to calculate their ability to act and react.  Then, you stand on their side, and raise arguments from their viewpoints.  When your counterparts have to argue against their own viewpoints, they would likely reveal their true intentions, rationalizations and justifications, unknowingly. [Devil’s advocate]

          If your counterparts refuse to talk, switch your communication style and invite them to speak of their opinions on certain commonly known recent events of their interests and its inevitable consequences.  While you support their opinions with generally accepted theory and logical comparisons, you will also apply the same generally accepted theory and logical comparisons to support your strategy.

By using reversal of position, you will be able to conclude whether your counterparts are telling the truth and whether they hold similar views and beliefs of the situation as you do.


Su Qin knew that he had to earn the lord’s total trust before the latter would commit to taking on his strategy.  He evoked the Entry and Wooden Shaft theory.

A wooden shaft was used in ancient Chinese homes, to bolt the doors.  When the homeowner lifted the wooden shaft, you had gained admission and Entry to his home and earned his trust. [Trust]

You must be knowledgeable about your counterparts’ interests and areas of expertise so as  to substantiate the contents of your speech.  For any discussions, you may sort all topics into three areas: the past, the present and the future.  The latter two can be grouped together.  While conferring on past matters, you will explain and analyze why and how they happened, leading to the eventual outcomes.  When discussing the present and future matters, you may speak as the changing circumstances demand, by applying the Yin-Yang and Open-Close theory.

          Wooden Shaft signifies the presentation of your strategy.  Candidly explain to your counterparts the merits and defects of your strategy in full detail.  This is the way to warrant their special confidence and trust in you.  Make sure that your strategy will satisfy their needs and interests.  If it is not manageable, you must re-evaluate the conditions, re-think and change your strategy or the method of presentation, to comply with their interests and concerns.  Such confluence will definitely make it easier for you to accomplish your mission. [Be flexible]


Su Qin made use of the art of building up and pinning down to secure the lord’s resolve to implement his strategy.


After having evaluated your counterparts’ intelligence, ability, power and imposing mannerism, you should build up their good reputation and publicize it.  They will be grateful for your good deed.  At the same time, you use different methods to pin them down so that they will not break away or change position from your strategy. [Cajoling-goading]


The New Mission


          Empowered by his new persuasion techniques and the knowledge that the six weaker states were constantly threatened by “Qin”, Su Qin set out for his new mission—to persuade the lords of the six weaker states, one by one, to form a coalition against “Qin”.

Mindful of the combined Yin-Yang and Open-Close theory, Su Qin’s opening statements to each lord would emphasize on the strengths of each state, with statistics from his research: the strategically advantageous terrain, the fertile soil, the abundant natural resources, the large and patriotic population under a benevolent and wise ruler, the well trained and disciplined soldiers and chariots, and the like.  He brought a map to analyze and explain the interrelationship of the six bordering states and each state’s advantages of joining the coalition, and the disadvantages (including ultimate destruction) of continuing submission to “Qin”.  He enunciated to each of the lords that once united with the other five states, they would become so powerful that they never had to kowtow to “Qin”.  And, at the same time, “Qin” would not dare to attack any one of them, for fear of their united front. [Strengths and weaknesses--reality check]

Su Qin headed to the state of Zhao in about 335 BC.  By 333 BC, he succeeded in convincing all six lords to form a coalition.  They agreed not only to defend against “Qin”, but also against any aggressor(s) amongst themselves.  They all appointed him as their prime minister to enforce the coalition agreement, the only person in Chinese history to have the honor of serving six states concurrently.  “Qin” became so wary of the coalition that it did not send its troops out of its territory for at least 15 years.  Su Qin was assassinated in 317 BC. 


          Unfortunately, human nature (pride, jealousy, distrust, fear, selfishness, and so on) got in the way of the six lords and their heirs.  The coalition was broken up and re-formed, intermittently.  Around 266 BC, lord Zhao of “Qin” utilized Fan Sui’s strategy to upset the six weaker states: befriend the distant states secretly and attack the nearby ones aggressively.  By 221 BC, lord Zheng of “Qin” finally defeated all six states.  He created the first centralized government in Chinese history and called himself the “First King” of the “Qin” Dynasty.



          Throughout this article, there are certain words and phrases printed in block letters inside the brackets [ ], for a specific purpose.  Let’s look at them collectively.

[Discovery; Mutual concerns; Totality of circumstances; Patience; Satisfy his needs and interests; Voluntary; Caucus; Active listener; Common interests; Body language; Be empathetic; Be creative; Confidentiality; Facilitate; Underlying issues; Compromise; Put yourself in another’s shoes; Devil’s advocate; Trust; Be flexible; Cajoling-goading; Strengths and weaknesses--reality check].


          An experienced professional mediator and negotiator will recognize all these words at a glance.  Although they are all contemporary words closely associated with the processes of mediation and negotiation, and some of the expected qualities of a mediator and negotiator, they also fit seamlessly with Su Qin’s techniques.  The author-translator (from Chinese to English) believes that Su Qin’s “Persuasion Techniques” (albeit written over 2300 years ago) are ageless, and are equally applicable in our modern day negotiations and mediations.

          The author is a mediator in private practice and was a member of the North America’s Mediators Delegation to Sydney, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand in August 2002.  Before the trip, the author prepared this article with the sole purpose of sharing some information relating to mediation with her colleagues, and thus, with mediators as her intended readers.  As a matter of fact, individuals from all walks of life can benefit from having the knowledge of persuasion techniques. 

          How often do you find yourself involved in the processes of negotiation with reference to: securing business contracts; lobbying legislative body for special interest groups; promoting employment relationships, and the like?  Negotiating for deals (whatever it maybe) is part of our daily life.  We may not be cognizant of the happening, but we actually negotiate with our own selves, e.g. when to get up; when to go to bed; what to eat for dinner; which route to take from point A to point B; what to wear for an ordinary or special occasion, and so on.

Start  practicing with “negotiations with yourself” (this is a safe way since not much harm can be done to you).  Be aware of the process and apply Su Qin’s persuasion techniques whenever and wherever appropriate.  Review the progressive steps to see if changes of techniques should be invoked.   At the end of the “self-negotiation”, write down your thoughts, your likes and dislikes of the techniques.  To strategize is like playing a game.  You may have fun doing it. 



Suggested Reading:  


The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Written before 453 BC)


How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc.)


Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury (Published by Penguin Books)


Change the Way You Persuade by Gary A. Williams and Robert B. Miller (Harvard Business Review, May, 2002)



copyright 2003 

Selina Wong Baray

A Professional Mediator

Los Angeles

Telephone Contact: (310) 471-7967