Category Archives: Kung Fu Strategies and Tactics
Strategies and tactics from martial arts carry over to non-violent interactions, too.
Xing Yi stylists are taught to “hit with the ground.” Chen Style Tai Chi practitioners learn to “punch with the feet.” The point is the same: maximum grounding at the point of contact, transferred seamlessly to the striking point, so the power of the punch does more than push the puncher off his feet. The fancy part of martial arts – all the punching, arm waiving, kicking and screaming – depends on remaining rooted.
Literature suggests one way being rooted translates into applications other than physical fighting: through backing up one’s own will with the interests of the group. For instance, in John Brunner’s disturbingly prescient science fiction novel The Shockwave Rider, the main character advises his captor that he has been “searching for a place to stand so that I could move the Earth.” He eventually escapes by recruiting his captor and does find a place to stand, within a small community of people who share a common goal.
In his more modern book, War, Sebastian Junger writes of the power of the brotherhood of the platoon, touching on evolutionary theory to show how one overriding driver of men’s behavior on the front lines is their being subsumed within a small group. Loyalty to that group is the fulcrum upon which infantry soldiers are able to survive and sometimes thrive under chaotic, dangerous conditions far removed from their pre-military life.
Negotiating from a position of strength means more than having a good argument or a special product with a premium price. It means that one needs the ground, the feet, the fulcrum. Most of us can be pushed further individually than we can when connected to a group, whether that group is a family, a workgroup or an organization. I never appreciated the distinction until I had the opportunity to serve as a member of the board of my apartment building many years ago. I found myself in a room with people, some of whom I liked and some of whom I despised, managing a litigation against a small building in which each of us was also named personally. All remove fell by the wayside: the plaintiff was after my home, my family, my neighbors, my fellow board members. That was the ground from which I was striking: I was defending the group.
One danger that the professional negotiator faces is the lack of ground. Lawyers and other third party negotiators who can be like the mercenaries of the process find a temporary connection to their clients’ groups and sometimes have a hard time separating themselves from the client – but at the same time, since they are ultimately not the maker or direct beneficiary of the negotiating decisions, may not have the benefit of the grounding that someone who actually works for the client has. Useless puffery becomes easy. Even within an organization, since all jobs at all levels are insecure in today’s economy, it can be difficult to find a true fulcrum from which to effect internal or external change. And therefore, it becomes easy to be another kind of paper tiger: not just one who acts in an inauthentic manner, but one who mimics speaking from true interests and merely stakes out positions.
Find your ground to make your hit more effective.
People have asked offline how to make and use the dit da jow referred to in the Iron Palm post. In response to their requests, this post is pure martial arts, no negotiation.
There are many recipes for dit da jow. After trying several commercial formulations, this one seemed to work best. Although I did some research about the individual herbs, I could not tell much about contraindications.
The way to use it is to apply it topically before training, then soak your hands in warm water after training, then re-apply. Some say to use the warm water and dit da jow treatment between sets for maximum effect. It is a powerful vasoconstrictor that seems to make bruises disappear and reputedly has mysterious powers like thickening the skin, strengthening bone and joint and preventing arthritis. Be sure to wash it off before touching food. You may need to wash it off sooner since it can make your hands cold, and because many people hate the smell. Incidentally, I have been told it works better on hands than elsewhere on the body, but I did use it to help bloody elbow strikes.
Take about a fifth of cheap brandy or Chinese rice wine and in it soak the following herbs, available from your neighborhood Chinese herbalist – sorry I do not have the means to enter the Chinese characters, but if you contact me backchannel I can provide them:
Gu sui bu
Liu ji nu (also called liu yue xue)
Rou cong rong
Luo shi tang
Hai feng teng
Wu jia pi
Yu jin (also called jiang huang)
Wei ling xian (there are reports that prolonged use may be dangerous)
Use a glass or porcelain jug only, never metal or plastic. Soak for at least 6 months, swirling the bottle once a week. It may take longer. For some reason, the standard advice is to stir in one direction only.
The herbs cost about $7, the brandy about $10 and the glass jug about $15. It has lasted a long time. I sometimes give out little bottles as Christmas presents.
Here are some disclaimers:
-The herbalist said that many of the herbs were poisonous if ingested, so one should use it externally only. Do not use on cuts or broken skin!
-There are many other formulations, most with fewer herbs. This one worked better for me, but others may work better for you.
-I am not an herbalist or TCM expert. Please consider consulting with someone more knowledgeable before trying.
-This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or condition.
If you are local, let me know if you would like to try some out!
One of the great legends of the martial arts is of people who can go beyond breaking boards with their hands. Stories tell that these people can break bricks or rocks. For some reason, a persistent story revolves around breaking coconuts.
The legends extend to other body parts. “Iron arms” is the name of a particular two-armed block in a few different kung fu styles, but the name also refers to superhuman blocking techniques that snap the bones of one’s attacker. Many styles claim to develop an “iron body” (in external styles) or secret energies that block blows anywhere on the body called “iron bell” (in internal styles). And then there are disturbing stories about the “iron crotch.”
The funny thing is, these stories are real. I have seen people split rocks. I know people who train by cracking coconuts. Check YouTube for clips of men dragging cars by their private parts.
The goal of Iron Palm training is to increase bone density, the ability of one’s joints to take the vibration of a hit and the flow of qi into the hands. It is not a flashy exercise. There are many variations, but here is an easy one: let your hand fall from shoulder height into something yielding. Completely relax so the qi flows through your arm. Do it a few hundred times a day, using different strikes that hit different parts of your hand. I spent about a year practicing with a five pound sack of beans. The next level, after about a year and a half, would have been a year or two with a bag of small river stones – if I had felt the need to be able to do the kind of damage a true Iron Palm master can inflict.
One important aspect of the training is to protect the hand from bruising and increase qi flow through application of a mysterious liquid called dit da jow in Cantonese. You can buy commercial stuff, but it is not hard to make a jug of your own if you have access to the recipe and a source of herbs.
The application of the Iron Palm to negotiation is simple. You have to build up until you are an expert. Just as few people develop hands that will crack coconuts after short practice, few people are born with all the interpersonal and strategic skills needed to become a good negotiator, advocate or mediator. Although I write often about re-directing energies and not being full-on aggressive all the time, you need the steel inside to be tough when the situation calls for it. That takes preparation. Read about negotiation. Find ways to practice it. Apprentice yourself to someone experienced. Take classes. When the crunch time comes, when you find yourself in the ring, you will then know what to do.
In the first few hours of basic mediation training, beginning students are exposed to a concept called “active listening.” It involves really listening, letting people know that you are hearing them without judging. Since one of the drivers of conflict can be people’s sense that they are not being heard, addressing that need is a fundamental element of conflict resolution.
Therapists are good at it. Many lawyers have trouble, since they are more used to talking than listening. While some people do have an innate talent for listening well, most people can learn how to listen better with practice.
Active listening dovetails very nicely with a set of skills from taiji (or t’ai chi, depending on how the word is Romanized). As you learn this complicated style, you also learn to listen to your own body to get the subtle internal movements right. Eventually, you learn to correct many of your own errors, because if you keep certain principles in mind mistakes simply feel wrong. Then, when you begin the two-person exercise called Push Hands, you learn to listen with your body to the other person’s movements. One of the Chinese words for listening is tingdong, literally meaning “to hear and to understand.” It does not come naturally, any more than active listening does to the new mediator, but one of the great health benefits of taiji is that it automatically carries over to other activities. After enough practice, you can even feel if you are breathing and walking wrong.
In a non-physical conflict, you can also learn to listen at a level beyond your ears. Normally, both the signal and the reception may be at an unconscious level. However, if you learn to listen to your own sensations that might otherwise be intellectualized or sensed as a random flux of hormones, if you learn to filter out internal noise, you might be able to pick up on others’ agitation and behavior patterns. Surprisingly, you might even be able to tell when people respond to signals you are telegraphing.
Next post, I’ll tell you how to use a qigong exercise to jump start your active listening.
As often happens, I made a mistake during sparring practice. As my opponent’s speed increased, I became anxious, not so much that my reaction times slowed but enough that my vision started narrowing down – a normal response worsened by my the fact that my visual attention is subpar to start with. It meant that I was aware of a left punch coming in, but lost track of the right. I intercepted and redirected the left with my right arm, then thinking all was clear I fired off from my left. You can guess where this led. I had overcommitted to a high left punch and couldn’t get my arm down in time to stop my unprotected left ribs from getting slammed.
It may be surprising for those of you who have never studied martial arts, but preparing to fight is not the main reason I train. Most of us are much more likely to do battle with the forces of age and time than to get in a bar fight (at least by my age!). There is also a Zenlike quality about losing yourself in the sensations of your body while detaching your ego from the process (not surprising, since Zen migrated to Japan from Shaolin, where it is called “Chan”). Still, it can be instructive for interacting in other contexts. “Overcommitment” isn’t just a dating mistake.
At the first level, overcommitment is about disclosure. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” is what happens after we find out as much as possible about what “yours” is. Only very rarely will we want to say early on in a negotiation, “this is as far as I will go,” or, “here is everything behind my decision, and if it makes sense you can tell me everything behind your decision.”
The next level amplifies on the first. Don’t give up too much in discussion, if you are unsure whether you may need to hold some of it in reserve to trade for something else. That is like sticking your arm out too far and leaving your flank exposed.
A third level is not to commit while you’re losing focus. If you are sparring, that may mean disengaging for a moment before you strike. If you are in negotiation, it may mean taking a moment for a bathroom break to clear your head with a cold splash of water on your face. If your team is with you, it may mean taking a break to talk amongst yourselves, so you can make sure your perspective is accurate. Otherwise, you run the risk of reaching out before you see that hidden punch coming in.
The key to all this, the way to know if you are overcommitting, is to know where your counterparty is. Keep your vision broad. It may be helpful preparation to theorize about where you want to take a conversation, but ultimately your success in the negotiation depends on your ability to perceive as much as possible the full scope of what your counterparty is thinking. You have to focus on his tactic of the moment enough to respond – that would be the left hook in the story – but you should always keep everyone’s ultimate goals in mind, as much as you can figure them out, in order to see the big picture and not step too far into an untenable position.
Keep your focus, and don’t overcommit.
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.
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!
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.
Negotiation has two goals: convincing the other party to accept your position and convincing them that you will follow through. Many pixels have been spilled over persuasive technique, interest-based negotiation and the like. In most business negotiation, though, trust is also an issue. How do you convey the sincerity and trustworthiness that is needed to make any kind of agreement stick? People generally will not enter into an agreement with someone they do not trust to live up to their end of the bargain, especially if the agreement is in settlement of an argument. The difficult part is finding a way that works for both parties.
In martial arts terms, the negotiating technique is like the way you wave around your hands and feet. It is the outer form of persuasion, which is important but not sufficient. Knowing how to make the persuasion meaningful is the equivalent of packing power in your punch. You can do it through brute strength (the equivalent of, “You will agree to my terms or else”) or through internal power moves that vary with the technique being applied (“I know this point is important to you”).
On the one hand, it means you have to listen to the other party to try to tell how to get the message through. That can be difficult enough, like looking for an opening to attack. Then you have to find a way to come across as sincere, and not just in the way of a con man that offers sincerity without substance. Some people are comfortable with overt emotional appeals. When other people try that, it seems phony and reduces credibility. Some people can express clear, logical, persuasive arguments. When other people try that, it sounds like a middle school debate team. Some people consciously modulate their facial expression, body language and even breathing. Others seem uncomfortable in their skin when they try that, especially if they try it in a cross-cultural setting in which each party uses different cues. Sometimes, conveying trust means setting up backstops, like escrows or penalties, so your counterparty believes you will follow through.
In martial arts, the rubber meets the road at the point of physical contact between you and your counterpart. After contact, if there’s no power, there’s no effect. In negotiation, the force of the impact is in the tone as much as the message. Most of the time, you will do well if you can find a way to convey a cooperative, trustworthy tone that works for you and connects with your counterparty.
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.
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.