Monthly Archives: April 2013

Negotiating With a Leopard


There are tens of thousands of styles of kung fu. Formalized systems started at least 1,500 years ago and are tied, in popular imagination at least, to the famous Shaolin Buddhist Monastery. There’s a fascinating contrast between peace and violence – zen originally came from Shaolin too.

You may have heard of the Shaolin animal forms, in which the practitioner mimics the movements and, indeed, the strategies of a particular animal. Practitioners refer to the “spirit” of the animal. The forms arose from the observation that people move their bodies in different ways. Since in the traditional way of thought each animal is associated with one of the five elements, the forms tie in well with the notion from Chinese medicine that different people have different balances of elements within them, affecting their personalities as well as their physical bodies. In many systems, the leopard is wood; the snake is earth; the tiger is fire; the crane is air; and the dragon is water. Nobody is innately a pure leopard or pure crane, but we all have natural movements that we slip into in times of stress or conflict.

Let’s start with the leopard. Leopard people hold themselves solidly, like a tree. They store tension in their backs. They often gesture with short, choppy movements of the upper body. In martial arts applications, their power would come from strong, fast muscles, keeping the spine tight yet flexible like a tree trunk while driving from the hip. It is amazing how often one sees people unconsciously adopting those body movements as they become agitated.

The leopard moves quietly, like a cat, but uses its strength up quickly. One of the strategies for dealing with them is to take advantage of that tendency. Leopard folks often put up a major struggle early in a negotiation or mediation. They need a release. After the initial burst of energy, they tire and become more amenable to the process. Whether it is an emotional, intellectual or just blowing off steam release depends on the context.

People who study certain of the karate forms adopt some of the body mechanics of the leopard, it seems. Those sharp chops work! Every block is a bone break! I’ve even seen little league batting coaches teach some leopard-like movements. However, these ways of approaching an opponent may not be a person’s natural way of dealing with conflict. Sometimes when people adopt learned behaviors, the intercessor (that would be me or another lawyer or mediator) has to look past the surface. It’s especially true with leopard movements, since so many people have been exposed to them.

When I was first learning how to mediate, I was in a session in which one of the parties was a contractor. I can’t remember the issues or how much they were arguing about, but I noticed the contractor starting to slash his hands around with characteristic leopard-like movements. It was striking: he was even moving the core of his body like a leopard. He was actually so close to being out of control that I felt there was a physical risk. It was a tough call: call off or suspend the session for safety, let him continue on the verbal attack until his juices stopped flowing, or intervene? Fortunately, the contractor limited his physical aggression to table pounding. The person on the other side of the table could take it, avoiding the personal nature of the attacks without getting too riled up. I think he carried himself like a snake (the subject of a future post). As Mr. Leopard wore himself out, his attention could be redirected to a more constructive place. As he physically relaxed, his movements even changed to be less jerky, suggesting that, perhaps, somewhere along the way, he had learned a response to conflict that worked some of the time, but tired him out even more than it would a natural leopard type. The parties eventually settled on a creative solution.

Intro to Kung Fu Mediation

Conflict is a part of life.  There are techniques we use, more or less effectively, to deal with conflict.  Some are instinctive, and some are learned.

I’m calling this blog Kung Fu Mediation for two reasons.  One is that in Chinese, the term gongfu can refer to any skill gained over long effort.  If you chi ku – “eat bitter” – by really working at something, you can develop a gongfu of that activity.  A 30-hour mediation training is a good start, but it takes many more hours of study and reflective practice to become good at it.  You have to keep working at it too.  There is always more to learn about negotiation and dispute resolution.

The other reason for the Kung Fu Mediation blog is to explore what the world of martial arts has to teach us about everyday conflict. After all, both kung fu and mediation are effective means of conflict resolution! Remember that our bodies are wired for physical conflict.  We respond in similar ways regardless of whether the conflict is physical or verbal.   If we are under stress, our heart rate goes up and our muscles tense.  If we are afraid, our eyes lose focus and cast about for an escape route, and if we are angry our awareness focuses in on the person causing us agita.  Our hands may ball into fists or grasp our pencils more tightly than usual.  It doesn’t matter whether we will be using those fists to resolve the conflict or whether we will be using tools more appropriate to abstract battles over resources or respect.  No matter how rational our strategies and tactics seem, they interact with some of the same cognitive and hormonal systems as if someone is swinging a punch at us.

That incoming punch is a great example.  If you see someone’s fist flying at your face, what is your first reaction?  Is it to duck, or to hold your hands up to protect yourself, or to stand there and see what happens when it makes contact?  In martial arts, the first two are considered to be ways of blocking the punch, one a yin block and one a yang block.  They are instinctive.  They are good things.  The third is considered to be getting hit.  That’s a bad thing.

In any negotiation, our first reaction is defensive.  Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are thinking, “You’re wrong.  It isn’t like that.  That’s not how it happened.  You aren’t doing it right.”  Sometimes people even hold up their hands to say “Whoa” when someone says something they perceive as an attack, just as if they saw something coming toward their face.  The reason why is, as the phrase goes, “so you can live to fight another day.”

And that’s the second piece, striking back.  Every beginning martial arts student learns that a block alone is not enough, most of the time, since your attacker has more limbs to hit you with.  You learn to block, then strike, and as you get more experience to do both at the same time.   The hard part is figuring out which block and which strike to use when, because our instinct is to lash out.  It gets complicated. Baguazhang, a martial art based on a mashup of the Yi Jing and Zen circle walking, divides the defense and counterattack world into 8 types of redirection (a block that, like the Dao, circles and goes with the flow of the opponent’s energy) and 8 types of strikes for a total of 64 basic combinations, matching up with the number of hexagrams. Just as it takes a ridiculous amount of effort hold that level of complexity in your head for any length of time even in a non-pressured situation, the complexities of interpersonal conflict can also be hard to keep straight. Some people’s default mode is to lash out at the first provocation and some people’s is to put up with the punches for a long time before exploding, in each case without regard to subtlety.

In mediation or as anyone trying to bargain for anything, we have to recognize that some very successful people never got far past that instinctual explosive defense-attack.  Not only do we have to find a way to redirect the punch, we have to get the other party to learn how to do the same.  Otherwise, it is very difficult to reach agreement with someone who only responds defensively.  Sometimes, the mediator’s job is to stand in the middle and redirect both parties’ punches so they can learn to speak with each other.

In a divorce I once mediated, the parties were so entrenched in defensive anger that even by the third session they could only talk to me, not to each other, without screaming. It was the verbal equivalent of wild, swinging punches. Before they could move on and resolve what were essentially economic issues, each had to figure out what they were defending – what their real interests were.  They had to realize that the confrontational interpersonal style that had failed them during their marriage was a roadblock to their divorce and to the cooperation that they would need going forward with their children.  We had to work on redirecting their anger to create a space within which they could focus. Later, when I started applying some of the lessons from that mediation in commercial contexts, they transferred over pretty readily (I’m really slow sometimes).

Every interaction contains the potential for conflict. The better we can deal with it, the better it is for both our personal and professional lives. There are lessons for us in the martial arts.