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How to Negotiate Like a Kung Fu Master: Snakes Versus Cranes

King Cobra Snake



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.

Negotiating With a Dragon


The Chinese Dragon is not like the European fire-breather.

Negotiating with a dragon, whose element is water, can be a rare and trying experience.

The Chinese dragon is not the fire-breathing creature that St. George killed: it is the bringer of rain. The mythical dragon has aspects of all the other animals, and is comfortable everywhere: beneath the seas, slithering like a snake, striking quickly like the leopard, leaping powerfully like a tiger, flying through the air like a crane. Its body moves like a wave, rolling in then falling back, appearing then moving quickly to disappear and reappear. The dragon’s kung fu power comes from everywhere the other animal forms get power, but especially from a twisting motion of the spine. Imagine how the dragon in the photo would move.

The organ system associated with the dragon in traditional Chinese medicine is the kidneys. A major function of this system is energy storage. People who channel their inner dragon are rarely lethargic, unless they are ill. Once the energy is drained, it may take time to refill. While a discussion of energy is off point, keep the general idea in mind.

How do we identify a dragon? A dragon can appear as a willful person who is hard to pin down (in negative aspect) or a sagacious trickster with a strong presence (mixed) or someone who seems powerful, understated and capable (all positive; think Bruce Lee’s screen image). The dragon, like water, is always moving, so if you see someone who moves flexibly and circularly in all directions, that person may have dragon aspects. One thing you should be careful of is that many people have learned some basic taiji, which is from a different Shaolin-derived system but still associated with water. I don’t know much aikido, but I have known practicioners who have airlike or waterlike movements.

Once you’ve found your dragon, what do you do with him? As in movement, the dragon can do anything any of the other types can do, plus some. Take notes! The thing about water is that it always wants to flow downhill. Cut the roots, eliminate or redirect the flow, and you have defeated your dragon. That can be difficult, though, and you’re likely to get hit along the way.

In order to keep yourself safe, consider how your own personal type interacts with the dragon. In one example from the five element theory, water extinguishes fire. Dragons are tough for tigers to deal with, because they’re evasive like the snake or crane but aggressive and relentless like the tiger herself. Tigery force with no place to land gets frustrated.

If you think back to all the people you have known, personally and professionally, you can probably picture many of the major animal archetypes. It is said that true dragons are the rarest. However, most of us have “watery” aspects. Even if you see just a hint of dragon in someone with an otherwise wooden personality, flag the observation. It may help.

Paper Tigers


The Fearsome Tiger

Tiger kung fu forms can be fun to practice. They often have big, athletic movements with leaps and yells. The outer layer of applications is easy to see (although each form still has layer upon layer of hidden applications).

Not every movement is a useful application for everyone, though. Many tiger movements work best for big, athletic people, but not so much for smaller folks. After all, in the wild, the tiger is a large and powerful predator.

On the flip side, not every big, athletic person moves like a tiger. The physiology of the tiger has certain requirements, but a person must have the right neurology, too. Some people are more lumbering than aggressive, or don’t have the coordination to do well with some of the more circular movements.

In a negotiation, some people use their positions within their organizations to let loose their aggressions. We see this often in lawyers: in their personal lives they may be meek, but when they are arguing on behalf of someone else they can be aggressive to the point of being offensive. Like people who just go through the motions of being a tiger, it is not what they really are, and to many of their counterparties the inauthenticity is more annoying than effective. One tactic you can take with the fake tiger is to follow the classic Art of War:  “If you know your enemy has a bad temper, seek to irritate him!” Then he will make mistakes. Alternatively, you can also appeal to his vanity or insecurity.

If you negotiate from a point of inauthenticity, your counterparty can take advantage of your weakness. The fake tiger isn’t really passionate, just a loudmouth. The fake snake isn’t really cunning, just transparently sneaky. Learn your own natural negotiating style! As the Art of War also advises, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will face a hundred battles without danger.”

Next post, we will go back to the big-picture discussion with the Shaolin Crane, but first I wanted to give you a sense of how these academic-sounding themes can play out in the real world.

Negotiating With a Tiger


Negotiating with a tiger, whose element is fire, requires the fortitude to be on the receiving end of aggression. Or Teflon-coated skin.

In the wild, a tiger on the attack uses big swipes of its paws to bash its prey as it leaps, ripping chunks of flesh as it knocks down its dinner. Its teeth are not the only danger. Shaolin tiger forms are often leaping, crushing, ripping, screaming, multi-level displays of naked aggression. The famous kung fu tiger claw starts with a bone-crunching strike with the heel of the palm, followed by the claws digging into an opponent’s flesh. People who interact like the Shaolin tiger can be aggressive and energetic, using expansive gestures or language and having the potential to become remarkably vicious when aroused.

Tiger people can be blustery and need to throw their weight around. Sometimes, they are large people who grew up that way.  Sometimes, they are angry to the core, for reasons that we can’t even guess. If they are able to channel and control these tendencies, they can be effective. It can be difficult to avoid being engulfed by their passion for the subject matter of the negotiation or their apparent fury at the dispute. However, they may have a hard time seeing how aggression is not always the best first-line approach to interpersonal relations. Some used car salesmen are tigers.

The negotiator has to be careful to distinguish between tigers and leopards. Both come out swinging, but actual tigers are bigger animals. In the Hung Gar Tiger-Crane form, many tiger movements are larger and more circular, with heavy involvement of the pectorals, while  leopard movements tend to be shorter, straighter and choppier. Sometimes one can pick up subtleties in the way agitated counterparties gesticulate, but more often one has to gather clues from the subtle energy each brings to the room. Tigers give a sense of a larger, fiery presence filling the room. When they get going, they may burn out, like the leopard, but more likely they will appreciate an appeal to the emotions to calm them down (water extinguishes fire, in the elemental system). Techniques used by mediators to validate and normalize emotions are often particularly effective.

Be aware that tiger types, consistent with the elemental theme, may engage in scorched earth tactics. In my experience, they do have a tendency to see the world as a zero sum game if they feel cornered. Try to make use of their passions to turn the discussion positive.

I have much more to say about tigers. Check back again soon.

Negotiating With A Snake

King Cobra Snake

Negotiating with the snake, whose element is earth, takes careful concentration.

The snake has no hands.  It slithers on its stomach.  The snake rears up, then waits patiently to strike and quickly coils back.  In some kung fu systems, it may even squeeze its prey.  The organ systems associated with the earth element are the stomach and spleen, and practitioners of snake forms must have strong and strangely flexible abdomens.  They withdraw from a punch by coiling in their stomachs and explode outward in a precise attack driven by those coiled muscles.  As the abdomen is where their power lies, so it is where tension is stored.

Snakes in the wild elicit primal fear. In Western society, the snake has negative connotations associated with the eviction from the Garden of Eden.  In the Bible, Jacob develops sciatica after a victorious wrestling match with archetypal overtones, and to this day kosher-keepers don’t eat cuts of meat containing the gid nahash, or snake nerve.  In India, the kundalini energy climbing the spine is pictured as a snake.   In China, the snake is treated with such respect that its archetype gets used not only in martial arts but also in astrology.

Snake people are grounded and patient.  Patience can come across as sneakiness or, if they let you into their game, quiet planning.   In the real world, these skills can pay off, so one should not be surprised to find ambitious snake people in leadership positions.   In the negative aspect of the archetype, you may not know quite where you stand with them.

How can you identify them walking into your office?  They often seem impassive, like a Japanese sarariman standing behind his boss.  They may have economy of movement, but since most people tense up under stress that’s hard to pick out.  The hand on the knotted stomach may be a sign, but it’s common enough not to be dispositive.  Rarely, I have seen people move unconsciously with subtle juts and retreats of the stomach, but that’s really hard to pick out since people in negotiations are generally clothed!  My kung fu teachers have told me that it’s even hard for them as practiced observers to see if students are moving properly, since “the snake is the most internal of the animal forms.”  Usually we have to rely on other clues.

One deals with a snake by recognizing that, as someone who prefers being grounded, details matter.  He will happily lose himself in them and avoid abstracting to the larger situation.  He may even get so distracted by them he cannot reach a conclusion without help.  You must start with details but work on getting him to see the big picture.  Opening with talk of big principles will bore him; he will not hear them, like a colorblind person being asked to pick out the big red block.

There comes a moment in many negotiations and mediations where one side suddenly sees the other’s perspective.  There may not be agreement on whether it’s valid, but that transformation brings down a certain barrier of “otherness” and lets the disputants either begin to build a common story or let go of their own story and the need to prove it so they can focus on the bottom line.  It’s tough to get there with a true snake, but it can be done if you chip away slowly.

Negotiating With a Leopard


There are tens of thousands of styles of kung fu. Formalized systems started at least 1,500 years ago and are tied, in popular imagination at least, to the famous Shaolin Buddhist Monastery. There’s a fascinating contrast between peace and violence – zen originally came from Shaolin too.

You may have heard of the Shaolin animal forms, in which the practitioner mimics the movements and, indeed, the strategies of a particular animal. Practitioners refer to the “spirit” of the animal. The forms arose from the observation that people move their bodies in different ways. Since in the traditional way of thought each animal is associated with one of the five elements, the forms tie in well with the notion from Chinese medicine that different people have different balances of elements within them, affecting their personalities as well as their physical bodies. In many systems, the leopard is wood; the snake is earth; the tiger is fire; the crane is air; and the dragon is water. Nobody is innately a pure leopard or pure crane, but we all have natural movements that we slip into in times of stress or conflict.

Let’s start with the leopard. Leopard people hold themselves solidly, like a tree. They store tension in their backs. They often gesture with short, choppy movements of the upper body. In martial arts applications, their power would come from strong, fast muscles, keeping the spine tight yet flexible like a tree trunk while driving from the hip. It is amazing how often one sees people unconsciously adopting those body movements as they become agitated.

The leopard moves quietly, like a cat, but uses its strength up quickly. One of the strategies for dealing with them is to take advantage of that tendency. Leopard folks often put up a major struggle early in a negotiation or mediation. They need a release. After the initial burst of energy, they tire and become more amenable to the process. Whether it is an emotional, intellectual or just blowing off steam release depends on the context.

People who study certain of the karate forms adopt some of the body mechanics of the leopard, it seems. Those sharp chops work! Every block is a bone break! I’ve even seen little league batting coaches teach some leopard-like movements. However, these ways of approaching an opponent may not be a person’s natural way of dealing with conflict. Sometimes when people adopt learned behaviors, the intercessor (that would be me or another lawyer or mediator) has to look past the surface. It’s especially true with leopard movements, since so many people have been exposed to them.

When I was first learning how to mediate, I was in a session in which one of the parties was a contractor. I can’t remember the issues or how much they were arguing about, but I noticed the contractor starting to slash his hands around with characteristic leopard-like movements. It was striking: he was even moving the core of his body like a leopard. He was actually so close to being out of control that I felt there was a physical risk. It was a tough call: call off or suspend the session for safety, let him continue on the verbal attack until his juices stopped flowing, or intervene? Fortunately, the contractor limited his physical aggression to table pounding. The person on the other side of the table could take it, avoiding the personal nature of the attacks without getting too riled up. I think he carried himself like a snake (the subject of a future post). As Mr. Leopard wore himself out, his attention could be redirected to a more constructive place. As he physically relaxed, his movements even changed to be less jerky, suggesting that, perhaps, somewhere along the way, he had learned a response to conflict that worked some of the time, but tired him out even more than it would a natural leopard type. The parties eventually settled on a creative solution.