Category Archives: Tai Chi and Ba Gua

Internal Arts, Internal and External Applications.

Putting the Pieces Together

scattered dominoes

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.

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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.

Kung Fu Negotiation: Double-Secret Tai Chi Skills

keys, secret

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.

Shamanism, Martial Arts And Negotiation?

Sorry, this is a strange post, even for an offbeat blog like this one!

I’ve recently come across a couple of articles suggesting that the origin of martial arts lies in ancient shamanistic practices rather than the practical need for self-defense. For instance, there’s this article on “Shamanism and the Origins of Martial Arts,” and this article on “The Shamanic Origins of Tai Chi.” The latter article begins by describing how much a “spirit dance” by a shaman of the Ka-ren tribe in Thailand reminded the author of tai chi.

Figurine of unknown origin doing exercise similar to Chi Gong

These ideas are interesting, particularly since the shamanic roots of Daoism are well-accepted in academic literature. As all you kung fu masters and other readers know, Daoism has played a key role in the development of tai chi and other martial arts. The way most of us practice, though, the ideas are a bit of a stretch – but if you feel like you are channeling a noncorporeal snake during training, who am I to argue? Teachers have been telling me for years to figure out how to BE a leopard, so I hope somebody gets it even if it eludes me! The fact that this is an often-used teaching method suggests that there is something to it, even if you are not a member of an animist tribe.

As an armchair anthropologist (who actually spent some time among the Ka-ren, a long time ago), I wonder how this carries over to daily life. If a modern person negotiates with the intense, quiet focus of a snake, is he engaging in the contemporary equivalent of a shamanistic spirit dance? Does the answer vary culturally, depending on whether that person is a woman in Boston or a man in the Philippines? It would make a nice research paper for someone.

With some mediators I know, the answer is clearly closer to yes! The Wikipedia definition of shamanism states, “Shamans act as mediators in their culture” (mediating between the living and the spiritual world). The Association for Conflict Resolution has a Spirituality section. Many mediators are explicitly motivated by religious ideas – I can name half a dozen people who have expressed this to me in terms their own backgrounds, as pastoral obligation, doing God’s will on earth, healing the world, etc. Some of these people are incredibly effective.

If this sense is a motivation for your work as an advocate, negotiator, mediator or even arbitrator – whether you want to BE the tiger or BE the balancing point – you can take it to the next level. Try adding in some physical elements, like those the shamans use.  Kung fu training may give you an archetypal boost.

Kung Fu Negotiation: Staying Centered With the Art of Ba Gua Chang

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 or Eight Trigrams Symbol

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.

Kung Fu Negotiation: Hit With the Ground

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.

Woman stepping on stone in middle of stream

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.

Listening and Standing, Part 2

Standing stones on Orkney Island

Active listening can be difficult for four main reasons. One is force of habit. Many people follow the same pattern in every interaction. It varies culturally, but one common pattern for negotiators in the US is to start nice, go through the list of issues, get testy, withdraw and sulk, come back reluctantly, then reach agreement. People are so stuck in their pattern there is no room to listen. Another is distraction from our own internal chatter and moment to moment physical discomforts – the psychologists use the term “internal distractors.” The third is difficulty in connecting with others, which is sometimes a skill that has not been learned and sometimes, as with people on the autistic spectrum, a biological difficulty.  The fourth is learning to listen without judging. Most people can learn to do better.

For many people, learning to quiet and bypass internal distractors is a very powerful tool. Any form of meditation will help with the sound of our own voices in our heads, which then helps with listening. Accepting one’s own physical discomfort in the process also helps with the judging bit. That represents at least two of the four roadblocks to listening.

There is also a very easy qigong exercise to start building your potential. It is called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. For the first position, take your shoes off and stand up. Keep your arms out from your body slightly. Feel a weight pulling at your tailbone, and lightness in the crown of your head like a balloon is pulling it upward. Breathe naturally with your diaphragm, so that you can feel your stomach rising and falling with each breath. Now just stand there. Feel the alignment of your body and any other internal sensations that come to you. Start with a minute or two at a time. Work your way up. When you get to five minutes you will start to see results. 20 minutes is a good goal, since we naturally seem to move in 20-minute cycles of concentration. This position is called Wu Ji, a term from Daoist theology referring to the formless void before creation from which the world ultimately flows – kind of like the “darkness on the face of the waters” from the book of Genesis. While one can get mystical about this exercise, it is immensely practical, both in terms of health benefits (balance, strength, alignment, reducing tension, even some minimal cardio) and increasing the ability to listen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it even increases the amount of qi available to you. For those readers looking for kung fu tactics, standing practice is the fundamental exercise for developing internal strength in taiji and certain other internal martial arts. All the fancy hand-waving in the world does no good without the strength to back it up.

There are many further levels of zhan zhuang, but this one is a good start. Give it a try. Whether your goal is to be a better martial artist, mediator, arbitrator or negotiator, listening is a critical skill, and if you can get physical benefits out of the learning process, so much the better.

Listening and Standing, Part 1

Ear, listening

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.

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.