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Kung Fu Negotiation: The Multi-Level Attack





After some time off over the summer, we’re back with more!

Toy Kung Fu Fighters

One martial arts tactic that translates well to litigation and other high conflict, win or lose situations is the multi-level attack. A negotiator can use it too, but if the relationship between the parties is important it can backfire and inflame tensions.

The multi-level attack relies on the fact that people have trouble keeping their attention on more than one dangerous stimulus at a time. There are two related versions. One is to distract (feint) and to strike. The other is to hit two spots at the same time.

Distract and strike carries over the best. In the well-known “jab-cross” that boxers use, the jab is a poke with one fist to draw the opponent’s attention, and the cross is a second punch with power that follows an instant later. There are many kung fu techniques that involve a snap kick to the groin that may or may not make contact, followed up an instant later with a strike to the face or another vulnerable spot. Distract your opponent with one thing, then follow up with a hard-pressed point that is really important to you. It is a variation on what negotiation theorists call “positional bargaining” in which a party stakes out a strong position knowing that he will back off of it in exchange for a concession elsewhere.

Other techniques involve striking more than one place. For instance, a complicated move from the Hung Gar Tiger-Crane set is called “Crane Flashes Wings”: one hand blocks, the other slashes across the opponent’s eyes while a snap kick comes in from below. Northern Shaolin Long Fist has a number of these techniques, including the well-known “Simultaneous Kick and Punch”: a snap kick to the groin and a punch toward the face, followed by a very powerful punch that will break your hand if you are not prepared to follow through. Even Yang style taiji has a nasty (and impractical) move with the poetic name “Step Up, Advance Seven Stars,” which is either (i) a simultaneous kick and crushing of the windpipe or (ii) a simultaneous low kick, punch to the midsection and punch to the face. In litigation, the equivalent is filing multiple motions, separating issues into multiple pieces of paper to appear before the court or even filing multiple complaints. I have been involved in a few disputes in which there were five or six separate actions pending in five or six separate state and Federal courts on essentially the same matter. By focusing the opponent’s attention on multiple attacks, this approach runs up the cost and the annoyance of continuing the conflict for the opponent. It is useful to demonstrate overwhelming strength, resources and determination, but is most often used when one is weak and wants to pick up a few victories to turn the tide of the conflict.

If you are on the other side of one of these attacks, your options may be limited. In martial arts, the masters have developed a counter-technique for each technique that might be used against them. In personal interactions, your response may be to step back and not engage (what the martial artists call a “yin block”), or to engage on each point if you do not know what is meaningful, or to draw the conversation to the point you deem the other side’s position to be weakest (the equivalent of the martial arts joint lock). In litigation, you have to respond or risk default, although motion practice and asking for continuances attenuates the power of the attack while running up the cost of continuing the dispute for both parties. Continuing the pain can be a good strategy, since people often agree to resolve disputes only after they are tired of the fight.

In a confrontational situation, conflict fatigue can help parties step back and engage in “interest based negotiation” – figuring out what is important, negotiating about that and letting the rest fall into place. It is like being able to tell the feint from the strike, or knowing how to push the opponent off balance so his wildly swinging fists do not strike their target. Sometimes you have to carry on the fight long enough to get there.

How to Make and Use Dit Da Jow

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.

Chinese herbalist

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)

Chuan xiong

Rou cong rong

Du zhong

Bu xiang

Mo yao

Xue jia

Fu ling

Luo shi tang

Xu duan

Hai feng teng

Wu jia pi

Yu jin (also called jiang huang)

Rou gui

Sheng jiang

Bai zhi

Niu xi

Wei ling xian (there are reports that prolonged use may be dangerous)

Dang gui

Xiang fuzi

Qin jiao

Cang zhu

Jiang huo

Ma gua

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!

Kung Fu Tactics: Overcommitment

Fight on Beach at Sunset

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.

Trust: The Power Behind The Punch

PowerbehindthepunchNegotiation 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.

Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Attack From the Side

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.