Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. You may not like them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful to you — or at least kept at bay. Here are four clever psychological tricks to turn them into allies.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
How to Identify Your Enemies
It’s possible to find enemies anywhere in your life. They could be a friend of a friend that regularly disrespects you, a classmate that gossips about you behind your back, or even an in-law that just doesn’t seem to like you very much. And let’s not forget the office: your boss and colleagues are some of the most common enemies you’ll encounter. They might refuse to give you projects for no reason, take credit for your ideas, or otherwise hold your career back. Anyone who has cheated, bullied, betrayed, slandered, used, or consistently disrespected or criticised you can be considered an enemy.
Identifying your enemies isn’t always an open and shut case, however. As Paul Dobransky, M.D., at Psychology Today explains, you sometimes have to look beyond their facade, and look at their actions toward you:
…our enemies dislike us, as we do them. They certainly don’t love us either, but may not express absolute hatred that can carry impulsivity, loss of control, and in the end, the tendency to invade boundaries, emotional or even physical. Enemies in other words, can still have maturity, boundaries, and even carry our respect in the presence of dislike.
Real enemies aren’t usually cartoon villains that cackle as they reveal their master plan. Instead, they can hide in plain sight. You both may know that you dislike each other, but it’s likely that no one else is aware of your tension. An enemy may not even express things to you directly, so you might hear about their dislike through gossip, emails, text messages, and other means.
The bottom line: an enemy is someone who provides a regular flow of negativity in your life through their words and actions. There’s no reason you should have to put up with that, so it’s time to get creative and turn them into an ally. That doesn’t mean they have to be your friend: shen it comes to your relationship, a friend isn’t looking at what’s in it for them, but an ally usually is. An ally needs to see that the benefits of supporting you outweigh the benefits of going against you. You may never get all buddy-buddy with your adversaries (and may not want to), but that’s ok. And in the grand scheme of life, the more allies you have, the better.
Stop Playing the Enemy and Get on Their Good Side
To get on your enemy’s good side, you have to stop playing the part of their enemy. As Dobronsky explains, it’s possible for an enemy to dislike you simply because they do not know you. And if you continue to play the enemy, they never will. For example, someone might share a mutual friend with you, and see you as a threat to their relationship. They will drum up excuses as to why your mutual friend shouldn’t spend time with you, or find ways to speak ill of you when you’re not around. You might feel inclined to fire back and poison your friend’s mind against them too, but before you do, consider that it takes two sides to start a war. While you may not be the primary instigator in your feud, you should cut off all retaliatory action immediately.
Make no mistake, this will not magically make them like you, but it’s an important first step in your master plan. If you continue acting adversarial, they will keep pushing back no matter what tricks you have up your sleeve. So grit your teeth, bite your lip, and start acting cordial. The next time you’re around them, instead of being passive aggressive or confrontational, convince them that you’re a likable person. Here are some tips that will help you slowly get on their good side:
- Use their name a lot: According to Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, a person’s name is the sweetest sound they can ever hear. Say their name, and their title if applicable, whenever you speak or write to them. They will eat it up.
- Follow the “Platinum Rule”: The Golden Rule suggests you treat someone how you would want to be treated, but your enemy isn’t you. Instead, follow the Platinum Rule and treat them how they want to be treated. You’re not sucking up, you’re just appealing to their sensibilities.
- Make them feel like an expert: People want to feel intelligent and capable, so make your enemy feel like that and you’ll become a source of confidence in their life. Ask them for help with something you already know how to do; ask for their opinion on certain topics, even if you don’t care to hear it; and point out how knowledgeable they are on topics that interest them.
- Practice Mirroring: You don’t want to be a copycat, but people tend to like those that match up with their own energy level and mannerisms. If they get excited about something, you get excited about something. If they like to use their hands when they talk, get your arms moving.
- Find (or create) common interests: People like others who have something in common with them. Do your homework and find something to connect you both. Hobbies, sports teams, food, travel, books, and even politics can all be great places to find common ground. If nothing seems to line up, and you’re feeling dastardly, find something they like and latch on. Just be sure to pick something you can actually talk about and doesn’t require a ton of knowledge.
- Avoid arguments and let them be right: They might make your blood boil, but avoid arguments at all costs. If you feel one coming on, try to back out. If you can’t, let them talk first about their point of view and say, “Interesting, I never thought about it like that before.” That simple phrase does three things: it makes them feel like their perspective is interesting (even if it isn’t), it makes them feel like they may have persuaded you in some way (oooh power), and it ends the discussion because they have made their peace.
- Repeat back what they say: When they say something that seems important, repeat it back to them. For example, if they say “it’s better to have meetings on Wednesday”, you’d say “I see, so it is actually better to have meetings in the middle of the week.” A recent study, published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, suggests that repeating things back makes others feel heard, and shows that you value their opinion.
If you still want to consider them an adversary in your mind, that’s OK; having rivals can be beneficial. The key is to show them that you’re not interested in war any more, so at the very least, you all can stand to be around each other at the same time.
Do Them a Favour, Ask for a Favour
Favours are perfect for swaying someone no matter which way they go. When you do your enemy a favour without being asked, you prime them for reciprocity later. People don’t like to feel like they owe someone something, so they will start to look for ways to help you later. That sounds an awful lot like the start of an alliance, right? For example, you can get bonus favour points by jumping to the rescue when your work enemy is in a crisis. The more stressful their situation is, the more thankful they will be for your helping hand.
You can also prime them for a favour by discreetly giving them a gift. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, or an obvious peace offering, just something that shows you that you’re on their side. Bring in some doughnuts for the whole office (being sure to grab their favourite kind), or pull the “shipping error” to give them a gift without making it awkward. As Dwight Schrute of The Office once said, “Can’t a guy just buy some bagels for his friends so they will owe him a favour which he can use to get someone fired who stole a co-manager position from him anymore? Jeez. When did everyone get so cynical?”
Once you have them primed, you can cash in that favour from your newfound ally. The best part is they will actually like you more for asking them thanks to the “Benjamin Franklin effect” — they will actually convince themselves that they did you a favour because they like you. Just make sure what you ask of them is so simple it’s an offer they can’t refuse. With them finally in your corner, you can get help from them on your next big project, or avoid them shooting down any of your ideas at the next big meeting.
Find (or Create) a Common Enemy
Remember that ancient saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Consider it from your adversary’s perspective. Say you have an in-law that you can’t seem to win over, for example. If you can find something that you both dislike, you’ll be able to unite against that common enemy as allies. According to Brian Uzzi and Shanon Dunlap at Harvard Business Review, you can do this with a method called “redirection.” Uzzi and Shanon explain with an example:
Clendenin decided to have a one-on-one meeting with Gunning, but not in his office, because that would only remind Gunning of the promotion he’d lost. Instead, he found out where Gunning liked to eat and took him there for lunch. “I was letting him know that I understood his worth,” Clendenin says of this contextual redirection. He followed this with a plain statement of redirection, telling Gunning that a third entity beyond the control of both men was the root cause of their situation. “I didn’t put you in this position,” Clendenin said. “Xerox put us both in this position.”
With this method, you suddenly become their comrade in the fight against whoever or whatever. It’s best if you can think up a real third party to be your enemy, but if you don’t have one, back them up on another one of their enemies. This is what Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, call “inventing a mutual purpose.” If your in-law hates a certain sports team, find a way to hate them too. If they’re always complaining about their cable provider, join them in airing your grievances. Once you’ve identified some common ground, your new-found ally will focus their negative energy elsewhere. And that can make visiting the family a whole lot more manageable.
Show Off Your Other Allies
A few clandestine operations can start to sway your enemies without you saying a single word to them. As Larry Stybel, Ed.D, and Maryanne Peabody, MBA, at Psychology Today explain, it’s sometimes it’s better to approach your enemies indirectly:
If you must deal with Enemies, look at the Allies that surround your Enemies. Focus on them.
Use any opportunities you can to show your enemy that others around you actually like you. If you’re dealing with a troublesome classmate or coworker, for example, do nice things for your other classmates and coworkers in plain view of your enemy, and compliment them in the earshot. Furthermore, you can start to gossip about your enemy with those around you, but in positive ways. Scott at Live Your Legend explains:
Often more powerful (and sometimes more appropriate) than telling the person directly is to share your appreciation for them with their friends and colleagues… Third party praise is a powerful thing — as long as it’s true. It will eventually get back to the receiver. Plus, hearing your genuine praise about someone close to them will likely cause their friends to like you more as well. And if all your friends like someone, what are the odds that you eventually start to feel the same?
This psychological phenomenon is called “Social Influence,” when people cause change in one another as a result of how they perceive themselves in society. Here is a good everyday example of social influence from Changing Minds:
I notice that people are using salt and passing it to the person on their left without comment. I conform by doing likewise.
The more you can make the allies you already have like you, the higher the chances your enemy will conform and comply. The next time you need the notes from a lecture you missed, or the next time you need a coworker to cover for you, your enemy might just change their tune. They will start to think “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and your band of allies will grow.
Lifehacker’s Evil Week highlights the dark side of life hacking. How you use that knowledge is up to you.