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Short Tai Chi Article from the New York Times

I’ve been slow in posting to the Kung Fu Mediation blog recently. Other projects have been demanding too much attention. There will be more on the way! Meanwhile, I thought some readers might enjoy this short article on tai chi from the New York Times.


Re-blogging Another Nerdy Martial Arts Post

Not sure I entirely agree, but it’s food for thought.

Great Article

Coincidentally, I just read a great article by Malcolm Gladwell on the power of listening:  “Could One Man Have Shortened the Vietnam War?”

It’s short and worth the read.

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.

Intro to Kung Fu Mediation

Conflict is a part of life.  There are techniques we use, more or less effectively, to deal with conflict.  Some are instinctive, and some are learned.

I’m calling this blog Kung Fu Mediation for two reasons.  One is that in Chinese, the term gongfu can refer to any skill gained over long effort.  If you chi ku – “eat bitter” – by really working at something, you can develop a gongfu of that activity.  A 30-hour mediation training is a good start, but it takes many more hours of study and reflective practice to become good at it.  You have to keep working at it too.  There is always more to learn about negotiation and dispute resolution.

The other reason for the Kung Fu Mediation blog is to explore what the world of martial arts has to teach us about everyday conflict. After all, both kung fu and mediation are effective means of conflict resolution! Remember that our bodies are wired for physical conflict.  We respond in similar ways regardless of whether the conflict is physical or verbal.   If we are under stress, our heart rate goes up and our muscles tense.  If we are afraid, our eyes lose focus and cast about for an escape route, and if we are angry our awareness focuses in on the person causing us agita.  Our hands may ball into fists or grasp our pencils more tightly than usual.  It doesn’t matter whether we will be using those fists to resolve the conflict or whether we will be using tools more appropriate to abstract battles over resources or respect.  No matter how rational our strategies and tactics seem, they interact with some of the same cognitive and hormonal systems as if someone is swinging a punch at us.

That incoming punch is a great example.  If you see someone’s fist flying at your face, what is your first reaction?  Is it to duck, or to hold your hands up to protect yourself, or to stand there and see what happens when it makes contact?  In martial arts, the first two are considered to be ways of blocking the punch, one a yin block and one a yang block.  They are instinctive.  They are good things.  The third is considered to be getting hit.  That’s a bad thing.

In any negotiation, our first reaction is defensive.  Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are thinking, “You’re wrong.  It isn’t like that.  That’s not how it happened.  You aren’t doing it right.”  Sometimes people even hold up their hands to say “Whoa” when someone says something they perceive as an attack, just as if they saw something coming toward their face.  The reason why is, as the phrase goes, “so you can live to fight another day.”

And that’s the second piece, striking back.  Every beginning martial arts student learns that a block alone is not enough, most of the time, since your attacker has more limbs to hit you with.  You learn to block, then strike, and as you get more experience to do both at the same time.   The hard part is figuring out which block and which strike to use when, because our instinct is to lash out.  It gets complicated. Baguazhang, a martial art based on a mashup of the Yi Jing and Zen circle walking, divides the defense and counterattack world into 8 types of redirection (a block that, like the Dao, circles and goes with the flow of the opponent’s energy) and 8 types of strikes for a total of 64 basic combinations, matching up with the number of hexagrams. Just as it takes a ridiculous amount of effort hold that level of complexity in your head for any length of time even in a non-pressured situation, the complexities of interpersonal conflict can also be hard to keep straight. Some people’s default mode is to lash out at the first provocation and some people’s is to put up with the punches for a long time before exploding, in each case without regard to subtlety.

In mediation or as anyone trying to bargain for anything, we have to recognize that some very successful people never got far past that instinctual explosive defense-attack.  Not only do we have to find a way to redirect the punch, we have to get the other party to learn how to do the same.  Otherwise, it is very difficult to reach agreement with someone who only responds defensively.  Sometimes, the mediator’s job is to stand in the middle and redirect both parties’ punches so they can learn to speak with each other.

In a divorce I once mediated, the parties were so entrenched in defensive anger that even by the third session they could only talk to me, not to each other, without screaming. It was the verbal equivalent of wild, swinging punches. Before they could move on and resolve what were essentially economic issues, each had to figure out what they were defending – what their real interests were.  They had to realize that the confrontational interpersonal style that had failed them during their marriage was a roadblock to their divorce and to the cooperation that they would need going forward with their children.  We had to work on redirecting their anger to create a space within which they could focus. Later, when I started applying some of the lessons from that mediation in commercial contexts, they transferred over pretty readily (I’m really slow sometimes).

Every interaction contains the potential for conflict. The better we can deal with it, the better it is for both our personal and professional lives. There are lessons for us in the martial arts.