A Needle Wrapped In Cotton: The Tai Chi Negotiator

I love tai chi (taiji). Learning the full Yang style form takes about a year. If one rushes through, it is easy to get confused.

Once you learn the form, it is easy to get lost in the moving meditation of the movements. There are layers upon layers of complexity, so you can sink without limit into the detail. Some people have said that tai chi takes more than one lifetime to learn. There are even hidden codes in the movements that bring the form to life in strange and unexpected ways. Some things are not for the Internet, though!

Cotton buds

In application – for tai chi, the great ultimate, is a martial art – the goal of the Yang style is to be “a needle wrapped in cotton.” The motion is soft and flowing, yielding gently like a ball of cotton, but with cold, hard steel on the inside. The practitioner yields to a push or a punch, making the pusher or puncher feel like he is moving against air, then suddenly turns the force around into a shock that knocks the other party off his feet. It is hard to learn to yield. Even though I’ve been at it for years, I still need a decade or two more practice before I really get it.

If you work at it enough, you can bring this same skill set to negotiation, even though our instinct is aggression. Seem to yield, then push back just at the right time. Redirect the complaints and at the last second turn them around. Embrace the ebb and flow of the conversation. Walk softly with your strength and have the confidence not to have to wave it around. This can be devastatingly effective, regardless of the approach your counterparty is taking. The tai chi negotiator seems to exert less effort, but still often gets her way.

Even if you are in a more formal dispute resolution setting, like an arbitration or litigation, you can still be a needle wrapped in cotton. The litigator who goes full bore in every contact with the judge may have a different reception than his calm opponent who strikes carefully at the important points and does not feel the need to respond to every minor argument. The party in mediation seems to go with the flow, which somehow brings everyone to his point of view. The tai chi arbitrator effortlessly redirects his opponent’s charges and therefore has much less flack to wade through in order to get to his point. He also, seemingly without effort, spends less time filtering the emotional content of the presentation as his opponent. It makes him more credible.

I’ll be writing much more about tai chi, ba gua and other “internal” practices. In the meantime, remember: don’t engage when you don’t have to. Redirect the attack.


About Jeffrey FInk

In my day job, I'm a lawyer, mediator, arbitrator and advisor in Wellesley, Massachusetts with clients locally and from around the world. I advise clients about general business matters, act as outside general counsel to several companies and counsel clients in more contentious situations. Wearing a different hat, as a mediator, Collaborative lawyer and ADR professional I help clients resolve a wide range of business and family disputes. I've also studied a number of styles of martial arts and have a second degree black belt in kung fu.

Posted on June 13, 2013, in Arbitration, Kung Fu Strategies and Tactics, Mediation, Negotiation, Tai Chi and Ba Gua, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. mimansha700crore

    Hello dear, me n my partner are very interested in learning Tai chi and kung fu forms.. We need to know how n from where, if u could email me some points of guidance or links where I can get them, it will be very helpful..

    Thanks Mimansha and Romel
    From India

    • I’m not sure of any good online schools. It would be really hard to learn without someone directly telling you how to move your body.

      My teacher (7th degree black belt) studies with Master Jerry Cook, who is a very interesting man and, in person, is like something out of a kung fu movie! He has a number of videos up on YouTube. That might be a good place to start if you want to try it. I’ve managed to learn the basics of a few forms from Master Cook that way.

      Good luck!

      It would

  2. Charles DaCosta


    No offence but this term “needle wrapped in Cotton” is from another style.

    The taichi variation on the concept was “Lead wrapped in cloth.”

    The taichi concept places more emphasis on the unity of Yin and Yang, which is the essence of taichi. The other is emphasizing a hidden danger in Softness, which is the essence of the other style.

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