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.
People respond to verbal conflict the same way they do to physical conflict. The same adrenaline starts to flow and our minds even adopt some of the same strategies. Being aware of these strategies is one of the essences of Kung Fu Negotiation. Whether you are sparring with your fists or with words, there a handful of basic principles:
1. To the extent you can, pick your battles.
2. Know your goals: why are you fighting?
3. Do not get hit. Block, avoid or redirect.
4. Learn to take some punches since you can never be sure you will be able to follow Rule #3. For instance, in external kung fu styles, there is “iron body” training, and in internal styles there is “iron bell.” In life, there is learning to be more thick-skinned.
5. Simultaneously block and strike. Every time someone comes after you, they leave themselves open, somewhere, somehow. This is one of the first things that beginning kung fu students are taught: it is dangerous just to block because eventually a punch will get through. In a difficult conversation, even if you are not always on the offensive, you should be prepared to be.
6. Create an opening. If someone’s guard is up, take it down. If someone punches at you, reach around the punch to hit him in the ribs. If you want to persuade people, think about whether to engage their objections directly or find a way to work around them.
7. Pick your target. In a physical fight, there are a number of spots that are good to aim for, and a number that are not. It may be better to aim for the stomach than the shoulder. In a really nasty argument, it may be better to slap your counterpart down than to engage on his terms.
8. Don’t overextend. You leave yourself off-balance if you punch too hard in a fight and exposed if you put too much on the table at the wrong time in a negotiation. It is even true for disclosing information.
9. Take care with your anger or other strong emotion. If it motivates you, it can be your friend. If it blinds you, it can be your enemy. Acknowledge it but be careful before embracing it.
10. Always be aware of your adversary. Do not look away. Anticipate his moves. Stay connected. In a negotiation, look for his actions and reactions. Be aware of when to be persuasive, when to push, when to connect, when to take a step back.
11. Always be aware of yourself. In a physical fight, know your strengths, weaknesses, body position and balance. In a difficult conversation, know your flash points and honestly evaluate your ability to be persuasive under pressure.
12. Decide how much damage you need to inflict to achieve your ends. Do not exceed that amount. For instance, if you are talking to an employee, you probably do not need to crush her. In most conversations, de-motivation is not your goal.
13. It is best to live to fight again another day. If you cannot win, find a way to withdraw safely. Gracefully concede the point. Restrain your ego.
14. Remember that withdrawal can be a strategic prelude to an attack. If your adversary sees weakness, it may draw her in, giving you the space and time to set up the right attack. It is OK to lead with a question.
It is good not to get hit.
If someone punches at a kung fu master, the master has many choices. He can block the punch, redirect it so its energy is harmlessly dissipated, strike back at the same time he is protecting himself, trap the punch momentarily while he lashes out with a kick, lock the puncher’s elbow, wrist or shoulder joint in order to immobilize and control him or even use the energy of the punch to throw the puncher across the room. He can also be somewhere else when the punch arrives, a so-called “yin” block. There is no shame or cowardice in not taking a blow. It is OK to duck if you know your next step. As long as the punch does not reach you, you are safe.
For the negotiator, the situation dictates the nature and level of your response. Sometimes it is better not to engage. For instance:
- Faced with a situation in which you are eventually going to lose, it may be better to postpone conflict for as long as possible.
- When someone is trying to bait you by engaging in personal attacks or otherwise pushing your personal or organizational buttons, it may be better to ignore the behavior than to ramp things up.
- When your counterparty is agitated, it may be better to let him tire himself out or become more annoyed rather than trying to negotiate with him in that state.
- When your counterparty is a moving target, it may be better to let him settle into a position before you respond.
- When your counterparty is not in a strong enough position to do damage or merit a response, it may be the best use of resources just to keep an eye on the situation.
- When you are waiting for external circumstances to turn more favorable, it may be better for you to postpone an exchange.
So, where does that leave our fearless negotiator? After avoiding conflict, does he stand his ground? Does he strike angrily at his counterparty? Does he do like Sir Robin in the movie Monte Python and the Holy Grail:
“Brave, brave Sir Robin/Bravely ran away/Away, away, away he ran/Oh, brave Sir Robin!/When danger reared its ugly head/He bravely turned his tail and fled/Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about/And gallantly he chickened out ….”
The answer is easy. Use the time in which you have not engaged to position yourself to respond. Whether you are thinking about the best response, marshaling organizational assets, dealing with internal organizational politics, letting your counterparty dig himself a hole or even preparing a better escape hatch, you may be able to improve your negotiating position for the next round of talks.
It is a mistake to confuse doing nothing with being ineffectual. Sometimes, stepping out of the way is the best thing you can do.
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.
Here’s a martial arts secret that is not really so secret: each movement in a form can have more than one application.
In Tai Chi, for instance, it is said that each movement has at least four applications: a block, a strike, a joint lock and a throw. Take the famous “Wave Hands Like Clouds,” for example. As you shift your weight to your right foot, your right hand waves slowly across your face, then moves in a circle downward as you shift your weight to your left foot and your left hand comes up to wave slowly across your face. Block a punch to the face? Sure, as your hand comes up and across. Strike your opponent’s face? Sure, if you’re close enough. Joint lock? It slips directly into one called “Dragon Holds A Ball” in external forms. Throw? Create the joint lock and keep the circular energy going around and down to the ground, following your counterpart’s body.
Different negotiators and different mediators have different styles. No one style or application of that style is the “right” one all the time. If you figure out your own style and master it, though, you will be able to pick and choose your approach to a given challenge, the way the kung fu master might use a block or redirect in one context but in a more violent one fling an opponent face first onto the floor.
Take our hypothetical Tai Chi negotiator. As he is sitting in his conference room, someone across the table makes a ridiculous demand.
–The block: He can swat it away and dismiss it, then go one with the conversation. It would be the “you don’t need that, let’s move on” approach.
–The strike: He can counter with an equally ridiculous demand, setting up what negotiation theorists call a positional bargaining situation rather than an interest-based negotiation. His strike will be followed by a block and possibly a counteroffer. “A thousand dollars? Maybe a hundred at most.”
–The joint lock: He can engage in a substantive discussion and try to pin his counterparty down. Talking smoothly, the noose tightens.
–The throw: While seeming to draw his counterparty into a substantive discussion, he can flip the ridiculous offer into something that embarrasses his counterparty into concession. Wait for the counterparty to tap out.
All this takes mastery. It is easy to say, “Talk smoothly,” but actually being able to do it is a significant skill. It is easy to say, “Flip that jerk across the table onto his face,” but it is at least as hard to do that figuratively as it is to do it literally. Think about it in your next negotiation. If you are wearing a mediator’s hat, think about guiding the parties into the right negotiating modes. Chances are, they will already be in a block-strike pattern when they walk through the door.
If you come to the table with the mindset of a kung fu master, you will know what to do.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Rou cong rong
Luo shi tang
Hai feng teng
Wu jia pi
Yu jin (also called jiang huang)
Wei ling xian (there are reports that prolonged use may be dangerous)
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!
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.