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How to Treat Your Enemies

They're an inevitable part of doing business, so it's essential to know how to avoid -- and deal with -- adversaries.

Editor's note: Welcome to our weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

When she read that E.B. White observed, "One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy," Miss Conduct wanted to address this unseen menace to business productivity.

Now, Miss Conduct has no enemies -- at least that's her story and she's sticking to it -- so she asked two of her most gracious acquaintances about the topic. Since these friends also happen to be experts in very different types of business conduct -- initial salesmanship and turnaround management -- their experience represents the full chronology of commerce, too. They broke having an enemy down into two phases: before and after.

Pre-Enemy: Assess Personalities

It's universally agreed that it's best if your enemies don't know they're your enemies, mostly because it makes you a more formidable adversary yourself. So how do we keep from making enemies in the first place?

On the one hand, Nicholas Boothman, author of

How to Connect in Business in 90 Seconds or Less

, recommends we conduct ourselves with the principle of completion in mind. "Some people want more than anything to feel powerful, some want to feel important, some crave recognition for their intelligence, some people want to feel valued and accepted," Boothman says. "When you can complete or validate that particular feeling, you have a connection with them."

More significantly for this discussion, Boothman warns against stepping on someone's emotional minefields that will disconnect you from them.

So figure out which principal of completion applies. Is your colleague more socially reserved or outgoing; more rational or more emotional? Combining the answers to this question is the key to figuring out his or her value system.

According to what Boothman and many other sales professionals employ, reserved, rational "analyst" people want to be known as intelligent, so never embarrass them. Reserved, emotional "supporter" people want to be valued, so never reject them. Outgoing, rational "controllers" want to feel powerful, so never undermine them. The outgoing, emotional "promoter" personality wants to feel important, so Boothman counsels, "ignore or disapprove of him at your peril."

Or, as Miss Conduct advises, cover yourself completely by not ignoring, disapproving, rejecting, undermining or embarrassing anyone. (And if you do, apologize immediately, sincerely and in detail.)

On the other hand, there's John Brincko, founder of Brincko Assoc., Inc., who specializes in large-scale corporate turnarounds, bankruptcies, liquidations and crisis management for clients such as


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. As he says, "I don't try to avoid making enemies, but doing what I do is sometimes very unpopular."

"There are a lot of people who won't confront an issue because they're afraid of annoying someone," says Brincko. "I don't follow that logic. I do what's best for the company and use considerate communications to explain the whys and the wherefores, minimize disruption and maintain morale and productivity."

As far as unpopular decisions go, Brincko is the voice of experience.

"If you have to close a company or a factory, I find that if I explain to all concerned in-person, in detail and give them a chance to ask questions, they will understand. People 'on the ground' have a better understanding than management usually thinks they do," Brincko explains.

In fact, Brincko applies to a large group what Boothman recommends for individuals. By making those affected by a potentially unpopular move feel intelligent, valued, powerful and important, it should mitigate any hard feelings.

Post-Enemy: Kill With Kindness

Unfortunately, most of us only find out we have an enemy after the first salvos are fired. Once the enemy ship has sailed, the only thing to do is assess the situation and try to find a way to turn it around.

As Boothman puts it, "An enemy is someone who makes you frightened. Instead of getting caught up in it, I ask what do they make you afraid of?"

If you can examine the means your enemy has employed to frighten you, you may find clues to what he fears, too. This might lead to a solution that will neutralize the enmity or at least, allow you to use other resources to meet whatever goals are now threatened.

For example, if unpredictability of schedule is the problem with your employee, being consistent with them in terms of expectations may allow you to shore up your boundaries. If sudden changes in attitude signal trouble, consistent collegiality on your part can allay the awkwardness. If you recognize that one colleague is not helpful, engineer a work-around until the bad weather clears.

Once we have enemies, Miss Conduct suggests the time-tested advice of killing them with kindness, mostly because she's noticed that it's hard for her to hold a grudge against someone who's always nice to her.

Indeed, this isn't a new concept. Dealing with enemies is something even the early Christians dealt with thousands of years ago -- and they were wilier than we give them credit for being. St. Paul's letter to the Romans tells us to love our enemies, perhaps in part because it throws them so off-guard.

John Brincko comes in on the side of the saints, too. "Sometimes, all of the conscientious strategies in the world just won't work," he notes. In that case, pull out the kindness cure.

"It can be viewed as a weakness," Brincko says, but admits, "I could've used more of it when I was starting out -- I felt strongly then that 'the heck with what they think.' But there's no reason to be that confrontational. Even in significant disputes -- in large lawsuits -- today I go out of my way to be civil and respectful." You end up being the one in control, and not just subject to a defensive reaction.

And you never know who you'll have to square off against again someday.

Plus, being kind to adversaries breeds good karma. No less an authority on religious and political world conflict than Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "It is easy enough to be friendly to one's friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business."

Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and