A CIA guide to understanding your opponent

Milo Jones advises executives not to project their own values onto foreign business partners during negotiations, but rather to research every detail about their lives for clues about their motivations.
Milo Jones
Jun 13, 2017

It’s not difficult to find information about business people you’ve never met. LinkedIn, Facebook, and online media provide plenty. But if you’re likely to face that person across the negotiating table you might need more than a basic biography. A sense of their character, their motivations, interests and concerns might also prove invaluable.

One of the most effective organisations in this field is the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour whose psychologists and medical doctors ‘prepare profiles and character assessments of foreign leaders.’

They don’t always get it right. In 2010, the US cultivated a ‘senior Taliban leader’ at some cost, only to discover that he was a complete fake. (It’s still unknown if he was a Pakistani shopkeeper, a Taliban provocateur, a Pakistani agent or a freelance fraudster.)

Mistakes aside, there are some effective quick-and-dirty CIA tools used to understand better how another person—whether potential business partner or competitor—might think. This is known as ‘strategic empathy’ or ‘mentalizing.’

This process is not just a matter of putting yourself in another’s shoes, or known as simulation theory. While this can work if you share a culture and background with your interlocutor when your target has a completely different set of values you risk projecting your own motivations and outlook on him or her. It can give you a highly distorted picture and is a trap to be avoided.

A theory of everything

The alternative approach, what cognitive psychologists call ‘theory-theory,’ is a longer and harder but more reliable process. Rather than transplanting yourself into another’s shoes, you gather as much information as you can about your opponent and their world.  You study their culture, read or watch anything they may have written or said. Every aspect of their life no matter how insignificant (their favourite food or music, the car they drive, their grandfather’s home town) must be scrutinised. For example, observing the weddings or funerals that your business rival has attended (and who else was there) can shed light on their values, friends and networks.

‘When your target has a completely different set of values, you risk projecting your own motivations and outlook on him or her, giving you a highly distorted picture.’

A theory-theory exercise also helps you to understand how they might misunderstand you and your motivations. This can give you a negotiating edge or simply help clear up needless misunderstandings. A foreign partner who studied at a university in your country will view you very differently than one who has never even visited your country. The former might, for example, be happy to hear a cold business pitch and perceive you as efficient and businesslike; the latter might find you aggressive or even insulting. Walmart founder Sam Walton would meet jet-setting potential international partners at the Bentonville airport in his old pickup truck with his dog in tow. As a result, he was often underestimated. It pays to know who you are dealing with; and here’s how.

Theory-theory in practice

Develop a chronology and back story. ‘Everyone’s politics start in grandmother’s kitchen.’ So as a basic framework, try to create a chronology of your target’s life, starting with their grandparents’ or parents’ birthplace and professions.  These issues are likely to have shaped your opponent’s worldview.

Every detail counts. By digging into the minutiae you may reveal important motivations or constraints. Early theories about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s peculiar walk, for instance, raised questions about a childhood injury or even neurological problems. But after reviewing hours of video and biographical details, experts concluded that Putin’s ‘gunslinger’s gait’ was an affectation derived from his KGB weapons training. Moreover, his Prime Minister Medvedev and other Kremlin officials have adopted similar styles, suggesting the centrality of ‘court politics’ when doing business in Russia.

Consider how opponents see you. Theory-theory will give you a more accurate picture of your opponent; but it will also help you perceive how they understand—or misunderstand—you.  Such misperception can have large consequences. But it can also help you clear up unnecessary misunderstandings. Try to create a profile of yourself seen through your opponent’s eyes.