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

King Cobra Snake

Crane

Crane

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.

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Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Using Soft Techniques

water drop

We Americans are raised in a culture that values directness and aggression.  As a result, most of us have a hard time grasping one of the great negotiating skills:  softness and strategic yielding.  While it may be difficult to master, it can be disarming and effective.

In his forward to Yang Chengfu’s The Essence and Application of Taijiquan, Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing) writes, “The way that softness subdues hardness is gradual, while the way hardness subdues softness is abrupt.  Abrubtness is easy to detect, so is easily defeated.  It is more difficult to sense gradualness, so it often prevails.”  People often think of “soft” as meaning “weak” and “hard” as being powerful, especially when it comes to physical fights.  Yet anyone who has ever seen a taiji (tai chi) fighter  knows that yielding and neutralizing can be incredibly powerful techniques (check out some of the endless online video clips).  If you are not there when your opponent strikes, he may be thrown off balance, leaving an opening for your counterattack.  That is especially true if his punch is hard and abrupt, leaving him no way to respond to you other than to hope he can pull back and reload.  The art comes in making him think you are there, right up until the last instant – a technique from internal martial arts like taiji “push hands.”  A variation from the external martial arts is known as a “yin” block, or disappearing from the place your opponent is trying to contact, as opposed to a “yang” block like knocking a punch out of the way.  Some of the Crane techniques are great examples.

How do “soft” and “hard” work in negotiations?  The key to “hard” is full frontal strength, over-muscling your counterpart.  That works if you are big enough, but try negotiating the boilerplate in your car lease and see how far you get.

There are two keys to “soft.”  Knowing how to yield may mean picking your battles and not making every point a bone of contention, like you have to do when dealing with a difficult two year old.  It may mean seeming to acquiesce, in whole or in part.  It may even mean asking for more and more explanations, or spending time on ancillary issues.  These are all techniques you can use for other reasons in any conversation, but they are also techniques for yielding and neutralizing.

The other key is timing.  Sometimes when you ask people to explain themselves over and over again because you just do not get what they are saying, they wear themselves out.  You can feel them starting to hear their own logical gaps, and then you come in with a counter to move them off their position.  When you have circled around an issue for long enough, your counterpart may grow impatient and feel the need to jump into the more difficult issue in an awkward way that sets you up in a better position.

The essence is to pay attention to the gaps.  It is traditionally referred to as the old strength being exhausted:  your time to strike is the moment between your counterpart’s extension of the old punch and its retraction in preparation for the new.  Consider that in the ebb and flow of the conversation.

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.