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The Making of a Mediator: Sun Tzu and the Art of War

Sometime between 480 and 221 B.C. during the “Warring States Period” of the Chou Dynasty, a Chinese general named Sun Tzu wrote a simple, tough, and provocative 5600-word treatise on how to triumph in warfare. It was Sun Tzu’s belief that a firm understanding of war is vital to the health, safety, and welfare of the state. He implored leaders to study conflict and become skilled in it. It is, he said, “a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or ruin.” Friends of mine who are interested in military history tell me that The Art of War, along with Machiavelli’s The Prince, Musashi Miyamoto’s The Book of Five Rings, and Karl von Clausewitz’s On War, is one of the great texts on military decision-making and the more general enterprise of soldiering. Because it is a classic work on a timeless subject, it has been translated and analyzed regularly for the last twenty-three centuries. Many different versions and interpretations of it are available.

After reading it, I think mediators and would-be mediators — particularly those embarked on the attempted resolution of complex public policy disputes, planning problems, and environmental consensus building — would do well to examine Sun Tzu because The Art of War is actually all about the art of using skillful strategies of intervention to minimize unnecessary confrontation and maximize gains that are within reach. At least that’s the way I think about it.

While Sun Tzu’s ideas about preparation, approaches, maneuvers, pressure points and the use of information (and spies!) all lend themselves to the strategies and tactics we use to manage controversies and settle disputes, the part that most intrigues me is his notion of the “five constant factors” which make for success. For Sun Tzu, these ideas were foundational and the point from which all other plans proceed.

In the James Clavell version of The Art of War, these factors are “the moral law” which causes people to be in accord with their leaders; “heaven” which connotes cold, heat, night, day, times and seasons; “earth” which is made up of distances, terrain, and danger; “the commander” who stands for virtues like wisdom, benevolence, and strictness; and “method and discipline” which are the ways that forces are marshalled. Other versions (e.g. The Art of Strategy by R.L. Wing, The Aquarian Press, 1989) treat these factors in a different manner and are worth comparing with Clavell for anyone who is interested. Nonetheless, all versions suggest versions of these ideas as the essence of thoughtful leadership.

But what if Sun Tzu was writing today? And what if, instead of writing a text for generals, he was writing a text for the new kind of leaders that the twenty-first century will inevitably require? In light of the explosive interest in — and growth of — mediation, facilitation, conciliation, and consensus-based conflict management processes, here is one small reinterpretation of Sun Tzu’s opening chapter:


Because the times are dangerous, the art of preventing, managing, and resolving unnecessary conflict is of vital importance to people everywhere. In certain circumstances, it is a matter of life and death, the road to safety or ruin. The work of the mediator, therefore, is essential and must not be neglected. Five basic principles will serve as a foundation for the mediator’s interventions. The first principle is awareness. The second is nature. The third is situation. The fourth is leadership. The fifth is art.

AWARENESS requires setting aside all preconceptions and observing the elemental “how” of things. Suppositions, opinions, and predilections interfere with understanding this “how”. Awareness of it comes with being alert which, in turn, is built on emptying one’s mind of prejudice. Awareness is the source of the highest and best impulses in people. It sustains the mediator and inspires others.

NATURE embraces the inevitability of differences of opinion and interest, hence the certainty of conflict. Conflict is darkness and light, danger and opportunity, stability and change, strength and weakness, the drive to move forward, the force that restrains it. All conflicts contain the seeds of creation and destruction.

SITUATION is the confluence of circumstances, remote or impending, intentional or unplanned, easy or difficult. Attention to conditions requires attention to details and observing predicaments. Situations lead to discernment, judgement, and choice of particulars.

LEADERSHIP is the quiet exercise of intelligence, credibility, courage, and sincerity. It is strength tempered with compassion and guidance with a light touch.

ART is the flexibility and freedom of form that has its ground in fundamental mastery of craft. Discipline of habit, and comfort of knowledge are the basis on which the rules of mediation are bent and shaped to circumstance.

Mediators must be familiar with these five precepts and understand and remember them. Those who do will succeed in their efforts to settle disputes with dignity and grace. Those who do not will waste everyone’s time.

This is what Sun Tzu might say if he were alive today and teaching mediation.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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