Category Archives: Kung Fu Strategies and Tactics
Strategies and tactics from martial arts carry over to non-violent interactions, too.
I’m a sucker for martial arts books. My shelves are full of guidelines for systems I will never have the chance to study, by masters past and present whom I will never have the chance, or sometimes the desire, to meet. There’s even a book about using taiji to run better.
Martial arts books fall into a few categories. The ones most people look for are the ones I think of as “How To Wave Your Hands Around” books. They describe the motions of forms and styles, often finishing up with short bios of famous teachers and cryptic translations of old sayings. The more interesting ones go into the mechanics: “How to Wave Your Hands Around With Intention.” It is endlessly fascinating to see how two movements can mean and do such different things with different intentions behind them. Is it a strike or a throw? However, lists of this kind of jing and that kind of jing are not always interesting reading since you really need an in-person teacher to show you how to unlock meaning and hidden moves within a form. The third category is philosophy, which is the difference between martial arts and fighting. You probably have these books on your shelves, too. Each of them has its place. I’ve quoted from one or another of them extensively in the Kung Fu Mediation blog, since each can be the source of great inspiration.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading a book that reaches multiple categories and beyond, Research of Martial Arts by Sifu Jonathan Bluestein. Mr. Bluestein is an exponent of two traditional Chinese martial arts, Xing Yi (internal) and Piguachang (mostly external) and uses his understanding of them to launch into an expansive, thoughtful exploration of the “why” behind traditional East Asian martial arts. Waving hands? A little, although it is not the main focus. Intention? Yes. Internal and external power? Yes, although he thoughtfully disagrees with the traditional classifications. Open hand forms and weapons? Yes. History and philosophy and interviews with masters? Yes. More than that, he touches on what most martial artists are secretly looking for: the keys to unlock hidden aspects within our systems through deep and authentic practice. That kind of serious practice can be reflected in our lives off the mat, too. Mr. Bluestein understands that martial arts are not only about fighting.
For those who are looking for more than the “how to” of martial arts or negotiating strategy, Research of Martial Arts is worth the read.
Kung fu masters have come up with many teachings that sound poetic but are extremely practical. For instance, people who practice Chen style tai chi say, “Don’t hit. Kick with your hands”: have a complete connection between your sole and your fist. It goes along with a Yang style tai chi saying that is a bit more explanatory: “All movement is rooted in the feet, controlled through the waist and expressed in the hands,” or one of the core principles of every style of tai chi, “If one part of me is moving, all parts of me are moving. If one part of me is still, all parts of me are still.” The endless hours of horse stance practice from external martial arts styles and standing qigong (zhan zhuang) from internal styles are not just to make one’s legs stronger and alignment better, but also to teach students to feel the connection between all parts of their bodies, how extra tension in the calves translates to imbalance that makes them hold their shoulders more tightly and painfully. The training even reaches further inside the student’s body, teaching him to breathe with more coordination, as in the “microcosmic orbit” breathing from the external styles or “back breathing” from the internal styles. Some Ba Gua students even claim to be able to control the operation of their internal organs. To these students, everything must work together, even, ultimately, autonomic function.
If you are negotiating with someone and your mind is spinning in a million directions, your distraction provides an opening for your counterparty to step in. Your arguments are not cogent. You do not project calm confidence. You forget facts and mix up conversations. Your constant retreats to your phone screen signal disrespect. While it is wrong to see the outcome of every discussion as either win or lose, if you are scattered, you are setting yourself up to lose. Do not be like the tai chi student who merely waves her hands around without the internal connections, whom the masters describe as “scattered and confused.” It is not a new age concept to learn to focus better!
Similarly, if you are speaking on behalf of someone else – whether it is your company, your employer or a client – it is your responsibility to make sure that the chain of communication and decision making reaches as far back as it has to. That way, you speak with the strength of the whole rather than just for yourself. If a company can say, “We hear you, but after consideration this is how the Board has decided to go,” it has much more strength than, “I’m not sure, but I don’t think we can do that.” All the parts of the organization should work together, or else, like the student struggling in a horse stance, some part is going to start complaining.
Realistically, this sort of integration and coordination is more an aspiration than a requirement. No person is focused all the time and no organizations work coherently all the time. As calm and grounded as you may feel on Tuesday, by Wednesday things may change. However, if you mirror the kung fu master, who finds something to improve every time he practices, the effort will pay off. In the meantime, like the student holding an uncomfortable position, find ways to strengthen the situation. Work on communications within your company and lobby your boss to get buy-in at all levels on your issue. Learn to use interpersonal cues to look like you are focused and attentive, and it will strengthen your connections. Take up yoga, tai chi, other martial arts or something that connects your movements. These small steps add up.
People respond to verbal conflict the same way they do to physical conflict. The same adrenaline starts to flow and our minds even adopt some of the same strategies. Being aware of these strategies is one of the essences of Kung Fu Negotiation. Whether you are sparring with your fists or with words, there a handful of basic principles:
1. To the extent you can, pick your battles.
2. Know your goals: why are you fighting?
3. Do not get hit. Block, avoid or redirect.
4. Learn to take some punches since you can never be sure you will be able to follow Rule #3. For instance, in external kung fu styles, there is “iron body” training, and in internal styles there is “iron bell.” In life, there is learning to be more thick-skinned.
5. Simultaneously block and strike. Every time someone comes after you, they leave themselves open, somewhere, somehow. This is one of the first things that beginning kung fu students are taught: it is dangerous just to block because eventually a punch will get through. In a difficult conversation, even if you are not always on the offensive, you should be prepared to be.
6. Create an opening. If someone’s guard is up, take it down. If someone punches at you, reach around the punch to hit him in the ribs. If you want to persuade people, think about whether to engage their objections directly or find a way to work around them.
7. Pick your target. In a physical fight, there are a number of spots that are good to aim for, and a number that are not. It may be better to aim for the stomach than the shoulder. In a really nasty argument, it may be better to slap your counterpart down than to engage on his terms.
8. Don’t overextend. You leave yourself off-balance if you punch too hard in a fight and exposed if you put too much on the table at the wrong time in a negotiation. It is even true for disclosing information.
9. Take care with your anger or other strong emotion. If it motivates you, it can be your friend. If it blinds you, it can be your enemy. Acknowledge it but be careful before embracing it.
10. Always be aware of your adversary. Do not look away. Anticipate his moves. Stay connected. In a negotiation, look for his actions and reactions. Be aware of when to be persuasive, when to push, when to connect, when to take a step back.
11. Always be aware of yourself. In a physical fight, know your strengths, weaknesses, body position and balance. In a difficult conversation, know your flash points and honestly evaluate your ability to be persuasive under pressure.
12. Decide how much damage you need to inflict to achieve your ends. Do not exceed that amount. For instance, if you are talking to an employee, you probably do not need to crush her. In most conversations, de-motivation is not your goal.
13. It is best to live to fight again another day. If you cannot win, find a way to withdraw safely. Gracefully concede the point. Restrain your ego.
14. Remember that withdrawal can be a strategic prelude to an attack. If your adversary sees weakness, it may draw her in, giving you the space and time to set up the right attack. It is OK to lead with a question.
The Kung Fu Mediation blog has three groups of readers: martial arts people, negotiation/dispute resolution people and those who do both. This post is aimed at martial arts readers.
I’ve received e-mails from all over the world in response to a post from a few months ago on How to Make and Use Dit Da Jow, which in turn was a follow-up to a post on Kung Fu Negotiation: The Iron Palm. People have been asking for more information on how to make Dit Da Jow, an herbal compound that is supposed to toughen the skin and reduce injury from repeated strikes.
My English handwriting is bad and Chinese handwriting is even worse. However, if you don’t mind squiggles, please click on the link for a PDF of a Dit Da Jow Recipe that you can print out and take to a Chinese herbalist. The herbs should cost less than $10. The prior post explains what to do once you’ve acquired the ingredients.
In addition to the disclaimers in the earlier post, please be aware that:
- It takes at least 6 months of infusing in alcohol to get really powerful, but you can start using it after 3-4 months.
- Dit Da Jow becomes a strong smelling potion. My wife complains when I use it.
- This recipe creates a powerful vasoconstrictor. In other words, it causes the small blood vessels to contract to help control bruising. However, it also makes your hands cold. It’s really important to run your hands under hot water before applying, both to improve absorption and to keep your hands warm. The masters say that the warmth is important for qi development. I say it makes the training less uncomfortable.
- Because of the smell, because the herbalists tell me some of the herbs are poisonous if ingested and because it feels better to limit the vasoconstriction, I always wash the stuff off in hot water after it sits for a few minutes.
- The shelf life should be at least several years. I have received mixed messages on whether to strain the herbs out after a period of time.
- The original source of this recipe was a commercial distributor that is now out of business. They told me that it is specifically designed for use on the hands, but I’ve used it on my arms and elbows too.
Finally, please, please remember that while Dit Da Jow helps, it’s not magic. It is easy to break your hand or wrist when you are trying to break too many boards (at higher levels, coconuts are a traditional target, too – but not for old guys like me). Train safely!
It is good not to get hit.
If someone punches at a kung fu master, the master has many choices. He can block the punch, redirect it so its energy is harmlessly dissipated, strike back at the same time he is protecting himself, trap the punch momentarily while he lashes out with a kick, lock the puncher’s elbow, wrist or shoulder joint in order to immobilize and control him or even use the energy of the punch to throw the puncher across the room. He can also be somewhere else when the punch arrives, a so-called “yin” block. There is no shame or cowardice in not taking a blow. It is OK to duck if you know your next step. As long as the punch does not reach you, you are safe.
For the negotiator, the situation dictates the nature and level of your response. Sometimes it is better not to engage. For instance:
- Faced with a situation in which you are eventually going to lose, it may be better to postpone conflict for as long as possible.
- When someone is trying to bait you by engaging in personal attacks or otherwise pushing your personal or organizational buttons, it may be better to ignore the behavior than to ramp things up.
- When your counterparty is agitated, it may be better to let him tire himself out or become more annoyed rather than trying to negotiate with him in that state.
- When your counterparty is a moving target, it may be better to let him settle into a position before you respond.
- When your counterparty is not in a strong enough position to do damage or merit a response, it may be the best use of resources just to keep an eye on the situation.
- When you are waiting for external circumstances to turn more favorable, it may be better for you to postpone an exchange.
So, where does that leave our fearless negotiator? After avoiding conflict, does he stand his ground? Does he strike angrily at his counterparty? Does he do like Sir Robin in the movie Monte Python and the Holy Grail:
“Brave, brave Sir Robin/Bravely ran away/Away, away, away he ran/Oh, brave Sir Robin!/When danger reared its ugly head/He bravely turned his tail and fled/Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about/And gallantly he chickened out ….”
The answer is easy. Use the time in which you have not engaged to position yourself to respond. Whether you are thinking about the best response, marshaling organizational assets, dealing with internal organizational politics, letting your counterparty dig himself a hole or even preparing a better escape hatch, you may be able to improve your negotiating position for the next round of talks.
It is a mistake to confuse doing nothing with being ineffectual. Sometimes, stepping out of the way is the best thing you can do.
The kung fu master must size up his opponent. One of the things he looks for is how the opponent is likely to attack or respond. In the Shaolin five animal-five element system, the way a person’s body moves and his or her innate approach to conflict drift toward certain of the animal archetypes. People are leopards, snakes, tigers, cranes and dragons in different measures. Each animal is associated with one of the five traditional Chinese elements: wood, earth, fire, air and water, respectively. It’s not just for kid’s movies! People follow the same approaches in negotiation. You can learn to pick up on it.
Air and earth are opposites, yet connected. There is a well-known martial arts legend about a kung fu master’s observing a fight between a snake and a crane. The crane struck and the snake coiled out of the way, then the snake struck and the crane brushed it out of the way. The master went on to develop techniques that mimicked the animals.
In conversations, people who channel their inner crane often prefer to evade sharp, unpleasant truths jabbing at them, even as they politely lance out themselves. When they do engage they may prefer to stick to abstractions, principles and the big picture. We see this often among mid-level businesspeople from certain Asian countries. It is something their culture has selected for. People who are channeling their inner snake, the predominant type among mid-level American businesspeople, may prefer details. Listen to whether people are using inductive or deductive reasoning, whether they work from concepts and apply them to real-world situations (crane) or work from details and use them to build concepts (snake). These two types may sound like they are speaking together, but they are really speaking two different languages. In the world of money, think of economist and manager: the perspective from which they discuss dollars is very different.
As a concrete example, think of a discussion within a manufacturing company about whether to expand a certain aspect of the business. One person speaks in generalizations of corporate strategy and macroeconomics. If the generalizations sound internally consistent they may indicate the way she thinks, but if not they may be like patches holding together an argument based on interests that are yet to be revealed. Someone else goes right to the numbers, or the practicalities of a staffing issue. The first speaker’s connection of the decision to the corporate mission statement seems to elude him. It may be hard to hear coherence amidst the detail, but one can listen for whether the details are obfuscation tactics or that person’s actual understanding of the situation.
Many of us have encountered similar contrasts in family arguments. Listen for words like “always,” as compared to a concrete focus on detail: “You’ve always acted like you don’t care about _____, so why are you bringing it up now,” versus, “I remember a Tuesday night four years ago when I came home from work and you said very clearly, ‘_________.'” While both charges may be redirection or misdirection tactics having nothing to do with the real concerns, they may also reflect actual ways of thinking.
Different walks of life attract different personality types in different cultures. Listen for the patterns. Being able to read the person sitting across the table from you will help you in your next negotiation. It can also help you manage the conflict that can arise from different ways of thinking and speaking.
Here’s a martial arts secret that is not really so secret: each movement in a form can have more than one application.
In Tai Chi, for instance, it is said that each movement has at least four applications: a block, a strike, a joint lock and a throw. Take the famous “Wave Hands Like Clouds,” for example. As you shift your weight to your right foot, your right hand waves slowly across your face, then moves in a circle downward as you shift your weight to your left foot and your left hand comes up to wave slowly across your face. Block a punch to the face? Sure, as your hand comes up and across. Strike your opponent’s face? Sure, if you’re close enough. Joint lock? It slips directly into one called “Dragon Holds A Ball” in external forms. Throw? Create the joint lock and keep the circular energy going around and down to the ground, following your counterpart’s body.
Different negotiators and different mediators have different styles. No one style or application of that style is the “right” one all the time. If you figure out your own style and master it, though, you will be able to pick and choose your approach to a given challenge, the way the kung fu master might use a block or redirect in one context but in a more violent one fling an opponent face first onto the floor.
Take our hypothetical Tai Chi negotiator. As he is sitting in his conference room, someone across the table makes a ridiculous demand.
–The block: He can swat it away and dismiss it, then go one with the conversation. It would be the “you don’t need that, let’s move on” approach.
–The strike: He can counter with an equally ridiculous demand, setting up what negotiation theorists call a positional bargaining situation rather than an interest-based negotiation. His strike will be followed by a block and possibly a counteroffer. “A thousand dollars? Maybe a hundred at most.”
–The joint lock: He can engage in a substantive discussion and try to pin his counterparty down. Talking smoothly, the noose tightens.
–The throw: While seeming to draw his counterparty into a substantive discussion, he can flip the ridiculous offer into something that embarrasses his counterparty into concession. Wait for the counterparty to tap out.
All this takes mastery. It is easy to say, “Talk smoothly,” but actually being able to do it is a significant skill. It is easy to say, “Flip that jerk across the table onto his face,” but it is at least as hard to do that figuratively as it is to do it literally. Think about it in your next negotiation. If you are wearing a mediator’s hat, think about guiding the parties into the right negotiating modes. Chances are, they will already be in a block-strike pattern when they walk through the door.
If you come to the table with the mindset of a kung fu master, you will know what to do.
Translated literally as “Eight Trigrams Palm,” the martial art of Ba Gua Chang is traditionally only taught to students who have first achieved a black belt in another discipline. It is said that anyone can learn the art of Taiji; one in 50 can learn the art of Xing Yi, another internal style; and only one in 100 can learn Ba Gua. It can be that complicated.
Ba Gua is a mashup of Zen circle walking, aspects of the Yi Jing (I Ching) and many different internal and external martial arts forms. People in China even attribute semi-magical qualities to it, like rebuilding qi to recapture youth. Some say that Ba Gua is one of the root practices of aikido, and the expert practitioner indeed moves like the aikido master, smoothly and effortlessly floating from one movement to the next. If you want to learn more about Ba Gua, check out masters Bruce Frantzis at http://www.energyarts.com and Jerry Cook at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0na1tpjkh1Y.
What does it have to do with negotiation, mediation or arbitration? If we look to the foundational exercise of this system, it becomes clearer. The root of Ba Gua is walking in a circle like the Zen masters. Pick a clear area 3-5 feet across. Raise your arms up into a guard position, with your right hand at shoulder level, slightly higher and further extended than the left. Start walking in a circle toward your right (clockwise), always keeping your shoulder and hand pointed toward the center of the circle. Step with your feet flat. Keep going. After a couple of times around, switch to your left hand, left shoulder, left direction. Do it again, then switch back. If you want to take it to the next level, always keep your eyes on the tip of your finger as the blade of your hand faces the center. Start circle walking just a few minutes at a time before you build up to more.
The key word here is “center.” You are circling the center, which when you get to applications will enable you to circle around the person attacking you. You are moving around the circle, which will enable you to move smoothly into some nasty joint locks and throws. Your focus is always on the center, not directly forward or on yourself, so you are always able to be flexible with your tactics.
Likewise, in a negotiation, your eyes need to be on the center: the reason you are in the negotiation. If your eyes are directly forward, you may get locked into a path without realizing why, or maybe even confuse that path with your real goals. If your eyes are on yourself, you may be too protective, and in your concern about being hit you will lose sight of your goals. If your strategies do not revolve around your real goals, you may be too easily deflected.
In a mediation, be prepared to circle behind the other party or even the mediator. You can do that if your attention stays on your goals, and if you are prepared to be flexible in the way you reach those goals. During this type of intensive negotiation, the circumstances are constantly shifting, and you need to be able to adapt.
In an arbitration, keep your focus on the center, the core of your argument. Try to move smoothly from one presentation of evidence to another, creating as even a flow as possible with no breaks in the argument. Take charge of the room like the Ba Gua master who looks like he is doing a solo ballroom dance even though each of his small movements can be devastating.
Ba Gua is designed so that one can fight eight people at once! It has major application in multiparty negotiations, settlement discussions or arbitration. When there are so many agendas on the table and so much complexity of competing demands, personalities and information flow, it is easy to be distracted and overwhelmed. Keep your focus on the center so you are prepared to ward off or attack each one of the other participants. The number of possible responses multiplies like the number eight in Ba Gua applications, Daoist thought or Chinese superstition, but unless you keep that focus you will get lost in the detail and have no power behind your implementation.
If there is one thing to remember about Ba Gua, it is this: if you focus on your goal despite chaos and try not to get locked in to a particular solution, you will be ready for whatever conflict your situation throws at you. It is another way of looking at interest-based negotiation.