You are walking away at the end of the argument. Your hands are shaky and clammy.
Or you are walking from your lawyer’s office or a mediation session. Although you reached a settlement, you are tired and wired. It has not sunk in yet: this battle is almost done.
Or the arbitrator’s decision is sitting unopened in your inbox. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and your throat closes as you reach for the mouse.
Or you are sitting sullenly across the table from your spouse after exhausting all words. You avoid eye contact, concerned that the fight might start back up even though you are no longer sure what sparked it.
Or, for that matter, you’ve been play-sparring in your martial arts or boxing school and still feel all pumped up.
People become attached to conflict. It does not matter who you are, or whether you are fighting on behalf of yourself or your organization. As a conflict is prolonged, people repeat and rehearse the story over and over again in their minds. When it is time to move on, it can be hard to disengage.
At the same time, the stress of conflict manifests itself physically. Cortisol and adrenaline are flowing through your veins; muscles are tensed in your shoulders or wherever else in your body you store tension; and the sheen of sweat on your face visibly thickens as the day goes on. Left alone, all this is poisonous: it can be unpleasant and seriously affect work performance or even daily life after the conflict is done. Addressing conflict poison is not touchy-feely or new-agey. It’s practical.
So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- At an immediately practical level, even though the moment of most intense conflict has passed, the final resolution may require you to take affirmative steps. These steps may include working with attorneys on settlement documentation, figuring out how to come up with a payment you are not happy about making, managing internal repercussions within your organization or with a spouse or reorganizing your schedule to meet new responsibilities. These activities are vital on two levels, both doing what you need to do to complete the resolution process and, psychologically, transitioning away from conflict.
- Get the conflict out of your body. Exercise, lots of fluids to wash the toxins away, getting a massage, doing yoga or taiji, meditating if that is your thing – before you have that drink! Although our built-in response to conflict is fight, flight or freeze, in the kind of conflicts you are likely to find yourself the chemistry of that response is not helpful for refocusing once the conflict is done. Get that stuff out of your system or it may stick with you and slow down the process of moving on.
- Look forward, not backward. People often tend to ruminate about the past. Now is the time to answer the mediator’s question about what life looks like after the conflict – whether it is in your personal or professional life. Act consciously. Managers should seek new responsibilities; those in less authority should wrap up their involvement and move on to the next project; individual disputants should seek out personal interactions in which the conflict is not the main topic of conversation. You know what to do. In time you will stop thinking about how things might have turned out.
Start planning beforehand: how are you going to put the brakes on so you can go forward?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Negotiating with a crane, whose element is air, requires taking care not to fall into a trap.
If you ever see cranes or herons fighting, they flap their wings a lot. They have thin, hollow bones, so much of the flapping is to deflect anything coming in from their opponent. They evade.
So, too, with crane kung fu forms. In martial arts theory, there are two kinds of blocks, yin blocks and yang blocks. A yang block is force on force, using your strength to counter a blow. A yin block is not being there when the punch is ready to make contact. Crane forms certainly have yang elements, but do rely heavily on yin blocks. Evading and redirecting other people’s force is one of the things the crane is known for. A good crane’s effortless redirection makes one feel like one is punching at air.
When I was first learning a crane form, I was told to (i) take everything about the tiger form that makes it a tiger and (ii) take it out. The rote memorization of the tigery forms I know were harder to learn, but the crane has been much harder to master. Crane forms done well look light, airy and graceful. For many of us, I’m reminded of a Chinese saying about efforts undertaken in vain: “A tiger drawn badly looks like a dog, and a heron drawn badly looks like a duck!”
A crane’s evasiveness can come across as passive-aggressive or conflict avoidant. There are some people with whom it is hard to carry on a difficult conversation because they just won’t engage.That is a valid strategy. If you encounter it, the best thing to do is to decide whether the non-engagement is based on fear of conflict or on calculation. If it is the latter, the goal, conscious or unconscious, may be to draw you into a position in which you are subject to attack. You can respond in kind, but then the negotiation can consist of wing flapping without getting much done. Conversations between two crane types can be difficult even for the best mediators, since issues become hard to resolve if neither of the parties will pin themselves down to a concrete conversation about the issues. The aggressive tiger may find himself caught in a trap the crane set as she withdrew or become so frustrated that he makes mistakes. A better response might snakelike: be calculating back.
Crane tendencies are hard to spot in the way that people carry themselves. Many people who do crane forms well have thin bodies and long limbs, although some bulked-up middle-aged men are excellent at it – it’s a question of body control. Look for people who hold their spines stiffly, like the leopard, but move fluidly. Still, gracefulness is a rare commodity. Sometimes the essence of redirection is to redirect our attention.
The theorists among you may see shades of the Thomas-Kilmann conflict modes, but that’s for another discussion.
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.