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Aikido and Conflict Resolution

At a conference on Collaborative Law last week, I had the pleasure of attending a session on Aikido and Conflict Resolution by Judy Ringer, a consultant and practitioner from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (www.judyringer.com). It was great to see someone else picking up on some of the same connections I’ve been writing about here. Even though her approach was different than mine, some of her core lessons, like centering and redirection, were the same. Keep up the good work, Judy!

water drop

I knew one or two of the other participants who had studied martial arts. Most had not, so it was interesting to see what appealed to them:

  • First was the “secret ninja” aspect. People thought it was cool to be learning anything about martial arts. Truth be told, most of us had that before we started training! I hope it whet some people’s appetites. A couple of people said to me afterwards that they had always wanted to learn an Asian fighting system.
  • Redirection is the essence of Aikido and plays a large role in many of the Chinese internal martial arts.  It is a hard skill to learn in pure martial arts training and it is really hard to teach in an hour to people with no background. Talking to other participants afterwards, some felt enough of an internal connection to start to relate it to dispute resolution techniques. Others not so much, although all were impressed with the Aikido demonstration and philosophy.
  • Being centered seemed lost on many. I think they were confusing the concept of physical centering with its new-agey equivalent. The reality, as all martial artists know, is that physical centering (perfect physical alignment) can lead to psychological centering. See my posts on Listening and Standing, Part 1 and Part 2.
  • Being rooted was something people grasped immediately. Can I push you over or not? This crowd, experienced in conflict resolution, felt in their bodies what it meant to be rooted. I may add that to my repertoire when it comes to my own conflict resolution practice. Is there an ethical way to have people in conflict do something like Tai Ji push hands? What if they already have a relationship that might provide some built-in limits?
  • People didn’t want to just have the experience. They needed to talk about it. One of the other participants, Prof. Robert Kubacki, who co-chairs the Civil Committee of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council with me (www.massclc.org/civilcollaborative), thought it might have to do with the distribution of Meyers-Briggs “S” and “N” types in the room. This crowd was over-weighted in the “ST” department, which suggests that a mix of concepts and hands-on experience was the best way to teach them.

I’m thinking about following in Judy’s footsteps and offering presentations on Kung Fu Mediation – making sure to allow time for a facilitated discussion about it afterwards! Please back-channel me if you have any thoughts on the topic.

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Kung Fu Negotiation: Hit With the Ground

Xing Yi stylists are taught to “hit with the ground.”  Chen Style Tai Chi practitioners learn to “punch with the feet.” The point is the same: maximum grounding at the point of contact, transferred seamlessly to the striking point, so the power of the punch does more than push the puncher off his feet. The fancy part of martial arts – all the punching, arm waiving, kicking and screaming – depends on remaining rooted.

Woman stepping on stone in middle of stream

Literature suggests one way being rooted translates into applications other than physical fighting: through backing up one’s own will with the interests of the group. For instance, in John Brunner’s disturbingly prescient science fiction novel The Shockwave Rider, the main character advises his captor that he has been “searching for a place to stand so that I could move the Earth.” He eventually escapes by recruiting his captor and does find a place to stand, within a small community of people who share a common goal.

In his more modern book, War, Sebastian Junger writes of the power of the brotherhood of the platoon, touching on evolutionary theory to show how one overriding driver of men’s behavior on the front lines is their being subsumed within a small group. Loyalty to that group is the fulcrum upon which infantry soldiers are able to survive and sometimes thrive under chaotic, dangerous conditions far removed from their pre-military life.

Negotiating from a position of strength means more than having a good argument or a special product with a premium price. It means that one needs the ground, the feet, the fulcrum. Most of us can be pushed further individually than we can when connected to a group, whether that group is a family, a workgroup or an organization. I never appreciated the distinction until I  had the opportunity to serve as a member of the board of my apartment building many years ago. I found myself in a room with people, some of whom I liked and some of whom I despised, managing a litigation against a small building in which each of us was also named personally. All remove fell by the wayside: the plaintiff was after my home, my family, my neighbors, my fellow board members. That was the ground from which I was striking: I was defending the group.

One danger that the professional negotiator faces is the lack of ground. Lawyers and other third party negotiators who can be like the mercenaries of the process find a temporary connection to their clients’ groups and sometimes have a hard time separating themselves from the client – but at the same time, since they are ultimately not the maker or direct beneficiary of the negotiating decisions, may not have the benefit of the grounding that someone who actually works for the client has. Useless puffery becomes easy. Even within an organization, since all jobs at all levels are insecure in today’s economy, it can be difficult to find a true fulcrum from which to effect internal or external change. And therefore, it becomes easy to be another kind of paper tiger: not just one who acts in an inauthentic manner, but one who mimics speaking from true interests and merely stakes out positions.

Find your ground to make your hit more effective.

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.

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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.

Fists of Fury?

Everyone knows how to make a fist, right? It’s instinctive. When you get mad, your hand balls up. Even so, there is some skill to ye olde fist that they teach in basic kung fu class. Clasp your fingers tightly to protect them; keep your thumb on the outside, wrapped tightly around your second knuckle; and angle your hand downward and outward so that there is a straight line between your first two knuckles and your elbow.

It turns out I can’t make a good fist. My fingers are attached to the knuckles in such a way that my index finger sticks out too far. Even after years of martial arts training, I am likely to hurt my hand if I give a good strong punch. I have to be careful. It is not a major problem, though. As my studies progressed, I learned that there are dozens if not hundreds of different ways to hold your hand to strike or grab, with names that sound like they come from bad action movies: hammer fist, tiger claw, dragon claw, crane’s beak, snake punch, unicorn strike.  “Fist like an arrow,” or the straight punch, is only one of them.  Some of them work for me, like the styles they come from.  Others do not.

The same is true of negotiation. Some people take the first instinctive course that comes to mind, acting directly and with instant escalation of the argument. It can be easier to lash out at provocation than to step back and ask yourself, “How can I get what I need from this interaction?” How many times have you seen someone try to push his position across by force regardless of his relative bargaining power rather than appeal to whatever reason, emotion or externality will convince his counterparty?  It is like using a regular fist against a wall, or using your strength to try to block a linebacker.  Maybe you can do pull it off, maybe it is a legitimate response to the circumstances, but it does not always make sense.  It can be a strategic error.

The flip side is that many people fall back when faced with aggression. That can be a legitimate response, too, but is it the right one at the right time?

In a real physical interaction, you would respond to provocation with an appropriate level of reaction.  If you are under threat of horrible injury, your goal may be instant savage incapacitation. Most of us are better off crossing the street to avoid the threat. If you have to engage, then you may be best off with a quick incapacitating blow rather than the limb shattering moves of most kung fu street fighting forms.  Otherwise, you may be the one who ends up in jail.  In a verbal argument, there are also levels of response.  Consider an argument with your spouse.  “Another way to look at it might be …” may be a better way to make your point than, “Stop acting like your mother!” Take a step back.  Pause.  Then decide:  maybe deflect, maybe engage in a surgical strike, maybe walk away.  Think about the range of what you can do.

Negotiating With a Dragon

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.

Negotiating With A Crane

Crane

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.

Paper Tigers

Tiger

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.

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.