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.
When we become agitated, our focus narrows. Literally. We stop paying attention to objects in our peripheral vision in order to hone in on the source of our problems. It’s the “fight” part of “fight or flight.” Watch someone’s eyes as they get angry.
The flipside is “flight.” If people start to feel cornered, their eyes may dart from side to side as if looking for a way out. It is not a conscious action.
The third leg of the stool is “freeze,” because a better description of the physiological process is, “fight, flight or freeze.” Like a deer in headlights, freezing up is a common and normal response to stress, one that is often seen in stress from perceived conflict but which can happen anytime people feel overwhelmed. As Peter Levine writes in his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, describing the freeze response of a young impala to an attack by a cheetah:
“One, it serves as a last ditch survival strategy … The cheetah may decide to drag its ‘dead’ prey to a safe place from other predators … During this time, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape … Secondly, in freezing, the impala (and human) enters an altered state in which no pain is experienced. What that means for the impala is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws.”
When people freeze up, they shut down. They stop processing visual (and other) information as efficiently. They sometimes develop a blank stare as related cognitive systems disengage.
At one level, you as the negotiator can get a sense of the emotional state of your counterparties by reading the body language of their eyes. It is a powerful but not infallible tool. Certain physical or mental illnesses, such as a history of concussions or schizophrenia, may interfere with typical expression. More commonly, people with better control of how their emotions are expressed may not provide you with strong signals. You may be dealing with a great poker player.
You can become one of these poker players if you learn to control the signals you are sending with your eyes. Your counterparty may consciously or unconsciously be picking up on them. This is where the martial arts come in.
Martial artists learn early in their training that if an opponent is tensing up and staring at his left fist, he is probably going to strike with that one first. Similarly, they learn to use their peripheral vision so that they do not use their eyes to telegraph their movements. Kung fu uses a hard stare to freeze the opponent and crystallize attention. Tai chi uses a softer, less focused gaze.
There is a phrase used in tai chi writings, “qi follows yi [intention], and yi follows vision.” In other words, look slightly ahead of the part of your body with which you will be blocking or striking. There’s a contradiction, though. Yang Chenfu, the creator of the most popular style of tai chi, wrote, “Your mien should be as a cat seizing a rat.” How does this fit with a softer stare? A softer stare is more flexible, although you’re still supposed to use your peripheral vision to track the movement of your hands and feet and those of your opponent. You’re supposed to have the intensity of the cat, but with softness. There is yin with the yang.
If you bring awareness of your vision into your negotiations, and force yourself not to tunnel in, not to jump around and not to tune out, if your intention is a soft focus despite whatever agitation you may be feeling at the moment, you are circumventing the physiological processes that are causing the agitation. Try to control your eyes. You might find yourself staying more in the moment and becoming more difficult for a counterparty to read. You will bring more of a calm focus to your actions.
Negotiation 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.
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.