Monthly Archives: October 2013

Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Using Soft Techniques

water drop

We Americans are raised in a culture that values directness and aggression.  As a result, most of us have a hard time grasping one of the great negotiating skills:  softness and strategic yielding.  While it may be difficult to master, it can be disarming and effective.

In his forward to Yang Chengfu’s The Essence and Application of Taijiquan, Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing) writes, “The way that softness subdues hardness is gradual, while the way hardness subdues softness is abrupt.  Abrubtness is easy to detect, so is easily defeated.  It is more difficult to sense gradualness, so it often prevails.”  People often think of “soft” as meaning “weak” and “hard” as being powerful, especially when it comes to physical fights.  Yet anyone who has ever seen a taiji (tai chi) fighter  knows that yielding and neutralizing can be incredibly powerful techniques (check out some of the endless online video clips).  If you are not there when your opponent strikes, he may be thrown off balance, leaving an opening for your counterattack.  That is especially true if his punch is hard and abrupt, leaving him no way to respond to you other than to hope he can pull back and reload.  The art comes in making him think you are there, right up until the last instant – a technique from internal martial arts like taiji “push hands.”  A variation from the external martial arts is known as a “yin” block, or disappearing from the place your opponent is trying to contact, as opposed to a “yang” block like knocking a punch out of the way.  Some of the Crane techniques are great examples.

How do “soft” and “hard” work in negotiations?  The key to “hard” is full frontal strength, over-muscling your counterpart.  That works if you are big enough, but try negotiating the boilerplate in your car lease and see how far you get.

There are two keys to “soft.”  Knowing how to yield may mean picking your battles and not making every point a bone of contention, like you have to do when dealing with a difficult two year old.  It may mean seeming to acquiesce, in whole or in part.  It may even mean asking for more and more explanations, or spending time on ancillary issues.  These are all techniques you can use for other reasons in any conversation, but they are also techniques for yielding and neutralizing.

The other key is timing.  Sometimes when you ask people to explain themselves over and over again because you just do not get what they are saying, they wear themselves out.  You can feel them starting to hear their own logical gaps, and then you come in with a counter to move them off their position.  When you have circled around an issue for long enough, your counterpart may grow impatient and feel the need to jump into the more difficult issue in an awkward way that sets you up in a better position.

The essence is to pay attention to the gaps.  It is traditionally referred to as the old strength being exhausted:  your time to strike is the moment between your counterpart’s extension of the old punch and its retraction in preparation for the new.  Consider that in the ebb and flow of the conversation.

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The Dragon of Weakness: Turning Limitations into Strength

mosaic dragon

Did you know that Bruce Lee was nearsighted?  He started off studying a martial art that specializes in close-in combat, Wing Chun, so he could keep fighting even if he lost a contact lens. Since one of his legs was shorter than the other, he often kicked with the longer leg to extend his reach.  Since he was not a tall man, he chose techniques that did not rely on domineering size and worked tirelessly at developing his physical power. By preparation, he turned weakness into strength.

Nobody is perfect.  No situation is perfect. When conflict happens, how do we handle the fact that we are probably not in an ideal place to resolve it?  Maybe some of these circumstances sound familiar:

  • You are nervous at having to confront someone or angry at being confronted.
  • You want or need more than you think you are likely to get.
  • Someone else – a boss or a spouse, maybe – wants you to achieve something in the conflict. The extra pressure makes you feel like just a mouthpiece.
  • The other party seems to hold all the cards.
  • The other party’s personality grates on your nerves.
  • There is unreasonable time pressure to reach a resolution.
  • You feel drained even thinking about the conflict.

One of the things you can do, like Bruce Lee, is to prepare.  You can turn each of these entirely reasonable concerns into a source of strength.  For instance:

  • If your natural inclination when you are nervous or angry is to rehearse the situation ahead of time in your head, then when the time comes for the difficult conversation, you will have thought through the permutations.  You will be in a better position to control your nerves and your anger.  Link that adrenaline edge to your thinking.
  • If you think you cannot get something from a negotiation, remember the words of the martial arts teachers: when you punch, picture punching through your target so you do not slow down right before contact. Trick yourself, if you have to, to be sure you are not holding yourself back.
  • If your boss is pushing you to do unreasonable things, or your spouse is not willing to listen to the other party’s reasoning, you have a second confrontation going on with the people on your own side.  Address them, and your side becomes stronger.
  • Necessity is the mother of invention.   If you have no room to bargain, get creative.  If the car dealer refuses drop the price further, get it to throw in the mats for free.
  • If someone’s personality grates on your nerves, your personality probably grates on his nerves, too.  If you can control yourself, you might be able to use his irritation to keep him off balance.
  • Time pressure is a two-edged sword.  While it adds stress, it puts limits on the discussion and forces the participants to move forward toward resolution rather than getting hung up. You can use the pressure to help your counterparty over a hump.
  • If you are tired of fighting, you are ready for resolution.  As you get more practice thinking about everyday negotiations as a kind of conflict, you get more fortitude to continue discussions.  As you exercise your abilities, you learn to outlast your counterparties, and that gives you an advantage.

What at first seems like a weakness may actually be a guide for how to use your strength.