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Truth to Power Trick

In 1982, while negotiating the future of Hong Kong the Chinese chairman Deng Xiaoping famously told British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that ‘China could take Hong Kong in a day.’

Thatcher called his bluff with something like “Yes, you could, but then the world would see Chinese peace and tranquility for what it really is.” Deng never mentioned the use of force for the remainder of the handover negotiations.

What happened here? Why did the stronger party pull their strongest “card” from the game?

Deng made the mistake of saying out loud something that Britain knew for at least 50 years, and the only two reasons he would do that were a) he was less certain of the outcome of such an attack and wanted to reinforce it, or b) had nothing better to bring to the negotiation table, so had to resort to this. By “forcing” the biggest strength he had, he revealed it to be less strong than previously imagined by the other side. So he stopped mentioning it, not to damage it any further.

The cardinal rule of speaking truth to power is that you only bring up counter-actions if you are worried the other side might not take them into account.

So when a client starts talking about their size, connections, or any other power they clearly have, they have just told you they are nervous about leveraging those AND it’s all they have, there are no surprises they could “swing”. Good to know.

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