Kung Fu Tactics: The Eyes Have It

Tiger Eye

When we become agitated, our focus narrows. Literally. We stop paying attention to objects in our peripheral vision in order to hone in on the source of our problems. It’s the “fight” part of “fight or flight.”  Watch someone’s eyes as they get angry.

The flipside is “flight.” If people start to feel cornered, their eyes may dart from side to side as if looking for a way out.  It is not a conscious action.

The third leg of the stool is “freeze,” because a better description of the physiological process is, “fight, flight or freeze.”  Like a deer in headlights, freezing up is a common and normal response to stress, one that is often seen in stress from perceived conflict but which can happen anytime people feel overwhelmed.  As Peter Levine writes in his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, describing the freeze response of a young impala to an attack by a cheetah:

“One, it serves as a last ditch survival strategy … The cheetah may decide to drag its ‘dead’ prey to a safe place from other predators … During this time, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape … Secondly, in freezing, the impala (and human) enters an altered state in which no pain is experienced. What that means for the impala is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws.”

When people freeze up, they shut down.  They stop processing visual (and other) information as efficiently. They sometimes develop a blank stare as related cognitive systems disengage.

At one level, you as the negotiator can get a sense of the emotional state of your counterparties by reading the body language of their eyes.  It is a powerful but not infallible tool.  Certain physical or mental illnesses, such as a history of concussions or schizophrenia, may interfere with typical expression.  More commonly, people with better control of how their emotions are expressed may not provide you with strong signals.  You may be dealing with a great poker player.

You can become one of these poker players if you learn to control the signals you are sending with your eyes.  Your counterparty may consciously or unconsciously be picking up on them.  This is where the martial arts come in.

Martial artists learn early in their training that if an opponent is tensing up and staring at his left fist, he is probably going to strike with that one first.  Similarly, they learn to use their peripheral vision so that they do not use their eyes to telegraph their movements.   Kung fu uses a hard stare to freeze the opponent and crystallize attention.  Tai chi uses a softer, less focused gaze.

There is a phrase used in tai chi writings, “qi follows yi [intention], and yi follows vision.”  In other words, look slightly ahead of the part of your body with which you will be blocking or striking.  There’s a contradiction, though.  Yang Chenfu, the creator of the most popular style of tai chi, wrote, “Your mien should be as a cat seizing a rat.”  How does this fit with a softer stare?  A softer stare is more flexible, although you’re still supposed to use your peripheral vision to track the movement of your hands and feet and those of your opponent. You’re supposed to have the intensity of the cat, but with softness.  There is yin with the yang.

If you bring awareness of your vision into your negotiations, and force yourself not to tunnel in, not to jump around and not to tune out, if your intention is a soft focus despite whatever agitation you may be feeling at the moment, you are circumventing the physiological processes that are causing the agitation.  Try to control your eyes. You might find yourself staying more in the moment and becoming more difficult for a counterparty to read.  You will bring more of a calm focus to your actions.

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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 18, 2013, in General, Kung Fu Strategies and Tactics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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