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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.

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 and Jerry Cook at

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.

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.

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.