Monthly Archives: May 2013

Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Attack From the Side

Years ago, I found myself negotiating a minor piece of a very large transaction between two phone companies. I had represented one of the phone companies before, in the role of a kind but gentle 800 pound gorilla. Negotiation with the other phone company revealed what it was like for two gorillas to interact. Reasonable requests were met with a rather rude, “No. What’s your next point?” It was only when I countered with a perplexed, “Gee, that’s not very constructive,” followed by an awkward silence, that my counterpart felt socially forced to start giving explanations. Once he felt he had to move from staking out a position to stating his interests, we were able to make progress.


In his book The Art Of Shaolin Kung Fu, Wong Kiew Kit lists a number of strategies and tactics. One of them is, “If an opponent is strong, enter from the side; if he or she is weak, enter from the front.” If you find yourself in a physical contest with someone much larger than you, it is difficult to meet him head-on. Instead, duck and weave to the side and go for the ribs, the side of the head or even the back. The flipside is that if you are much larger than your opponent, you should beware his sideswipes if you barrel over him.

If you’re sitting across the table from someone, similar rules apply. Someone with a wad of cash to spend, like a lead investor or a bank with an unalterable loan agreement, can take the role of the 1,000 pound gorilla. She doesn’t have to be rude about it, but can say, “I’m sorry. This is the way we do things. There is no flexibility on that.”

If you are met with the big gorilla response, what do you do? Unless you have the power and desire to threaten to walk away from the table, and unless your counterpart really cares if you walk away, you can’t attack head on and throw down the gauntlet. That would be entering from the front, as if your opponent were weak. The only thing you can do is enter from the side, like my conversation with the phone company lawyer: a shove from the side, then stepping back as he fell into his imbalance. Depending on the situation, you can focus your counterpart’s attention elsewhere to draw out an explanation eliciting his real interest, in which case you can then try to seek a constructive compromise. You can put a pin in the difficult topic and move off to something related, then circle back. Then again, if the point is ancillary you can accept it and move on to the next one. The latter course would be sidestepping your counterpart’s implicit threat to walk away unless he gets his way.

In sum, if you are the big gorilla, there may be important points you just do not need to negotiate. If your position is not so strong, consider an indirect approach to get what you really want. As a mediator, help one or both of the parties redirect their conflict. In an ideal world, each will feel he has encountered a strong opponent, attacked from the side, and won.

Fists of Fury?

Everyone knows how to make a fist, right? It’s instinctive. When you get mad, your hand balls up. Even so, there is some skill to ye olde fist that they teach in basic kung fu class. Clasp your fingers tightly to protect them; keep your thumb on the outside, wrapped tightly around your second knuckle; and angle your hand downward and outward so that there is a straight line between your first two knuckles and your elbow.

It turns out I can’t make a good fist. My fingers are attached to the knuckles in such a way that my index finger sticks out too far. Even after years of martial arts training, I am likely to hurt my hand if I give a good strong punch. I have to be careful. It is not a major problem, though. As my studies progressed, I learned that there are dozens if not hundreds of different ways to hold your hand to strike or grab, with names that sound like they come from bad action movies: hammer fist, tiger claw, dragon claw, crane’s beak, snake punch, unicorn strike.  “Fist like an arrow,” or the straight punch, is only one of them.  Some of them work for me, like the styles they come from.  Others do not.

The same is true of negotiation. Some people take the first instinctive course that comes to mind, acting directly and with instant escalation of the argument. It can be easier to lash out at provocation than to step back and ask yourself, “How can I get what I need from this interaction?” How many times have you seen someone try to push his position across by force regardless of his relative bargaining power rather than appeal to whatever reason, emotion or externality will convince his counterparty?  It is like using a regular fist against a wall, or using your strength to try to block a linebacker.  Maybe you can do pull it off, maybe it is a legitimate response to the circumstances, but it does not always make sense.  It can be a strategic error.

The flip side is that many people fall back when faced with aggression. That can be a legitimate response, too, but is it the right one at the right time?

In a real physical interaction, you would respond to provocation with an appropriate level of reaction.  If you are under threat of horrible injury, your goal may be instant savage incapacitation. Most of us are better off crossing the street to avoid the threat. If you have to engage, then you may be best off with a quick incapacitating blow rather than the limb shattering moves of most kung fu street fighting forms.  Otherwise, you may be the one who ends up in jail.  In a verbal argument, there are also levels of response.  Consider an argument with your spouse.  “Another way to look at it might be …” may be a better way to make your point than, “Stop acting like your mother!” Take a step back.  Pause.  Then decide:  maybe deflect, maybe engage in a surgical strike, maybe walk away.  Think about the range of what you can do.

Negotiating With a Dragon


The Chinese Dragon is not like the European fire-breather.

Negotiating with a dragon, whose element is water, can be a rare and trying experience.

The Chinese dragon is not the fire-breathing creature that St. George killed: it is the bringer of rain. The mythical dragon has aspects of all the other animals, and is comfortable everywhere: beneath the seas, slithering like a snake, striking quickly like the leopard, leaping powerfully like a tiger, flying through the air like a crane. Its body moves like a wave, rolling in then falling back, appearing then moving quickly to disappear and reappear. The dragon’s kung fu power comes from everywhere the other animal forms get power, but especially from a twisting motion of the spine. Imagine how the dragon in the photo would move.

The organ system associated with the dragon in traditional Chinese medicine is the kidneys. A major function of this system is energy storage. People who channel their inner dragon are rarely lethargic, unless they are ill. Once the energy is drained, it may take time to refill. While a discussion of energy is off point, keep the general idea in mind.

How do we identify a dragon? A dragon can appear as a willful person who is hard to pin down (in negative aspect) or a sagacious trickster with a strong presence (mixed) or someone who seems powerful, understated and capable (all positive; think Bruce Lee’s screen image). The dragon, like water, is always moving, so if you see someone who moves flexibly and circularly in all directions, that person may have dragon aspects. One thing you should be careful of is that many people have learned some basic taiji, which is from a different Shaolin-derived system but still associated with water. I don’t know much aikido, but I have known practicioners who have airlike or waterlike movements.

Once you’ve found your dragon, what do you do with him? As in movement, the dragon can do anything any of the other types can do, plus some. Take notes! The thing about water is that it always wants to flow downhill. Cut the roots, eliminate or redirect the flow, and you have defeated your dragon. That can be difficult, though, and you’re likely to get hit along the way.

In order to keep yourself safe, consider how your own personal type interacts with the dragon. In one example from the five element theory, water extinguishes fire. Dragons are tough for tigers to deal with, because they’re evasive like the snake or crane but aggressive and relentless like the tiger herself. Tigery force with no place to land gets frustrated.

If you think back to all the people you have known, personally and professionally, you can probably picture many of the major animal archetypes. It is said that true dragons are the rarest. However, most of us have “watery” aspects. Even if you see just a hint of dragon in someone with an otherwise wooden personality, flag the observation. It may help.

Kung Fu Mediation in Spanish!

A special thanks to Mr. Andrés Vásquez of Alen Media Group for a nice blog article in Spanish about Kung Fu Mediation!  You can find it at

Negotiating With A Crane


Negotiating with a crane, whose element is air, requires taking care not to fall into a trap.

If you ever see cranes or herons fighting, they flap their wings a lot. They have thin, hollow bones, so much of the flapping is to deflect anything coming in from their opponent. They evade.

So, too, with crane kung fu forms.  In martial arts theory, there are two kinds of blocks, yin blocks and yang blocks.  A yang block is force on force, using your strength to counter a blow.  A yin block is not being there when the punch is ready to make contact. Crane forms certainly have yang elements, but do rely heavily on yin blocks. Evading and redirecting other people’s force is one of the things the crane is known for. A good crane’s effortless redirection makes one feel like one is punching at air.

When I was first learning a crane form, I was told to (i) take everything about the tiger form that makes it a tiger and (ii) take it out. The rote memorization of the tigery forms I know were harder to learn, but the crane has been much harder to master. Crane forms done well look light, airy and graceful. For many of us, I’m reminded of a Chinese saying about efforts undertaken in vain: “A tiger drawn badly looks like a dog, and a heron drawn badly looks like a duck!”

A crane’s evasiveness can come across as passive-aggressive or conflict avoidant. There are some people with whom it is hard to carry on a difficult conversation because they just won’t engage.That is a valid strategy. If you encounter it, the best thing to do is to decide whether the non-engagement is based on fear of conflict or on calculation. If it is the latter, the goal, conscious or unconscious, may be to draw you into a position in which you are subject to attack. You can respond in kind, but then the negotiation can consist of wing flapping without getting much done. Conversations between two crane types can be difficult even for the best mediators, since issues become hard to resolve if neither of the parties will pin themselves down to a concrete conversation about the issues. The aggressive tiger may find himself caught in a trap the crane set as she withdrew or become so frustrated that he makes mistakes. A better response might snakelike: be calculating back.

Crane tendencies are hard to spot in the way that people carry themselves. Many people who do crane forms well have thin bodies and long limbs, although some bulked-up middle-aged men are excellent at it – it’s a question of body control. Look for people who hold their spines stiffly, like the leopard, but move fluidly. Still, gracefulness is a rare commodity. Sometimes the essence of redirection is to redirect our attention.

The theorists among you may see shades of the Thomas-Kilmann conflict modes, but that’s for another discussion.

Paper Tigers


The Fearsome Tiger

Tiger kung fu forms can be fun to practice. They often have big, athletic movements with leaps and yells. The outer layer of applications is easy to see (although each form still has layer upon layer of hidden applications).

Not every movement is a useful application for everyone, though. Many tiger movements work best for big, athletic people, but not so much for smaller folks. After all, in the wild, the tiger is a large and powerful predator.

On the flip side, not every big, athletic person moves like a tiger. The physiology of the tiger has certain requirements, but a person must have the right neurology, too. Some people are more lumbering than aggressive, or don’t have the coordination to do well with some of the more circular movements.

In a negotiation, some people use their positions within their organizations to let loose their aggressions. We see this often in lawyers: in their personal lives they may be meek, but when they are arguing on behalf of someone else they can be aggressive to the point of being offensive. Like people who just go through the motions of being a tiger, it is not what they really are, and to many of their counterparties the inauthenticity is more annoying than effective. One tactic you can take with the fake tiger is to follow the classic Art of War:  “If you know your enemy has a bad temper, seek to irritate him!” Then he will make mistakes. Alternatively, you can also appeal to his vanity or insecurity.

If you negotiate from a point of inauthenticity, your counterparty can take advantage of your weakness. The fake tiger isn’t really passionate, just a loudmouth. The fake snake isn’t really cunning, just transparently sneaky. Learn your own natural negotiating style! As the Art of War also advises, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will face a hundred battles without danger.”

Next post, we will go back to the big-picture discussion with the Shaolin Crane, but first I wanted to give you a sense of how these academic-sounding themes can play out in the real world.

Negotiating With a Tiger


Negotiating with a tiger, whose element is fire, requires the fortitude to be on the receiving end of aggression. Or Teflon-coated skin.

In the wild, a tiger on the attack uses big swipes of its paws to bash its prey as it leaps, ripping chunks of flesh as it knocks down its dinner. Its teeth are not the only danger. Shaolin tiger forms are often leaping, crushing, ripping, screaming, multi-level displays of naked aggression. The famous kung fu tiger claw starts with a bone-crunching strike with the heel of the palm, followed by the claws digging into an opponent’s flesh. People who interact like the Shaolin tiger can be aggressive and energetic, using expansive gestures or language and having the potential to become remarkably vicious when aroused.

Tiger people can be blustery and need to throw their weight around. Sometimes, they are large people who grew up that way.  Sometimes, they are angry to the core, for reasons that we can’t even guess. If they are able to channel and control these tendencies, they can be effective. It can be difficult to avoid being engulfed by their passion for the subject matter of the negotiation or their apparent fury at the dispute. However, they may have a hard time seeing how aggression is not always the best first-line approach to interpersonal relations. Some used car salesmen are tigers.

The negotiator has to be careful to distinguish between tigers and leopards. Both come out swinging, but actual tigers are bigger animals. In the Hung Gar Tiger-Crane form, many tiger movements are larger and more circular, with heavy involvement of the pectorals, while  leopard movements tend to be shorter, straighter and choppier. Sometimes one can pick up subtleties in the way agitated counterparties gesticulate, but more often one has to gather clues from the subtle energy each brings to the room. Tigers give a sense of a larger, fiery presence filling the room. When they get going, they may burn out, like the leopard, but more likely they will appreciate an appeal to the emotions to calm them down (water extinguishes fire, in the elemental system). Techniques used by mediators to validate and normalize emotions are often particularly effective.

Be aware that tiger types, consistent with the elemental theme, may engage in scorched earth tactics. In my experience, they do have a tendency to see the world as a zero sum game if they feel cornered. Try to make use of their passions to turn the discussion positive.

I have much more to say about tigers. Check back again soon.

Negotiating With A Snake

King Cobra Snake

Negotiating with the snake, whose element is earth, takes careful concentration.

The snake has no hands.  It slithers on its stomach.  The snake rears up, then waits patiently to strike and quickly coils back.  In some kung fu systems, it may even squeeze its prey.  The organ systems associated with the earth element are the stomach and spleen, and practitioners of snake forms must have strong and strangely flexible abdomens.  They withdraw from a punch by coiling in their stomachs and explode outward in a precise attack driven by those coiled muscles.  As the abdomen is where their power lies, so it is where tension is stored.

Snakes in the wild elicit primal fear. In Western society, the snake has negative connotations associated with the eviction from the Garden of Eden.  In the Bible, Jacob develops sciatica after a victorious wrestling match with archetypal overtones, and to this day kosher-keepers don’t eat cuts of meat containing the gid nahash, or snake nerve.  In India, the kundalini energy climbing the spine is pictured as a snake.   In China, the snake is treated with such respect that its archetype gets used not only in martial arts but also in astrology.

Snake people are grounded and patient.  Patience can come across as sneakiness or, if they let you into their game, quiet planning.   In the real world, these skills can pay off, so one should not be surprised to find ambitious snake people in leadership positions.   In the negative aspect of the archetype, you may not know quite where you stand with them.

How can you identify them walking into your office?  They often seem impassive, like a Japanese sarariman standing behind his boss.  They may have economy of movement, but since most people tense up under stress that’s hard to pick out.  The hand on the knotted stomach may be a sign, but it’s common enough not to be dispositive.  Rarely, I have seen people move unconsciously with subtle juts and retreats of the stomach, but that’s really hard to pick out since people in negotiations are generally clothed!  My kung fu teachers have told me that it’s even hard for them as practiced observers to see if students are moving properly, since “the snake is the most internal of the animal forms.”  Usually we have to rely on other clues.

One deals with a snake by recognizing that, as someone who prefers being grounded, details matter.  He will happily lose himself in them and avoid abstracting to the larger situation.  He may even get so distracted by them he cannot reach a conclusion without help.  You must start with details but work on getting him to see the big picture.  Opening with talk of big principles will bore him; he will not hear them, like a colorblind person being asked to pick out the big red block.

There comes a moment in many negotiations and mediations where one side suddenly sees the other’s perspective.  There may not be agreement on whether it’s valid, but that transformation brings down a certain barrier of “otherness” and lets the disputants either begin to build a common story or let go of their own story and the need to prove it so they can focus on the bottom line.  It’s tough to get there with a true snake, but it can be done if you chip away slowly.