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Negotiating With a Leopard


There are tens of thousands of styles of kung fu. Formalized systems started at least 1,500 years ago and are tied, in popular imagination at least, to the famous Shaolin Buddhist Monastery. There’s a fascinating contrast between peace and violence – zen originally came from Shaolin too.

You may have heard of the Shaolin animal forms, in which the practitioner mimics the movements and, indeed, the strategies of a particular animal. Practitioners refer to the “spirit” of the animal. The forms arose from the observation that people move their bodies in different ways. Since in the traditional way of thought each animal is associated with one of the five elements, the forms tie in well with the notion from Chinese medicine that different people have different balances of elements within them, affecting their personalities as well as their physical bodies. In many systems, the leopard is wood; the snake is earth; the tiger is fire; the crane is air; and the dragon is water. Nobody is innately a pure leopard or pure crane, but we all have natural movements that we slip into in times of stress or conflict.

Let’s start with the leopard. Leopard people hold themselves solidly, like a tree. They store tension in their backs. They often gesture with short, choppy movements of the upper body. In martial arts applications, their power would come from strong, fast muscles, keeping the spine tight yet flexible like a tree trunk while driving from the hip. It is amazing how often one sees people unconsciously adopting those body movements as they become agitated.

The leopard moves quietly, like a cat, but uses its strength up quickly. One of the strategies for dealing with them is to take advantage of that tendency. Leopard folks often put up a major struggle early in a negotiation or mediation. They need a release. After the initial burst of energy, they tire and become more amenable to the process. Whether it is an emotional, intellectual or just blowing off steam release depends on the context.

People who study certain of the karate forms adopt some of the body mechanics of the leopard, it seems. Those sharp chops work! Every block is a bone break! I’ve even seen little league batting coaches teach some leopard-like movements. However, these ways of approaching an opponent may not be a person’s natural way of dealing with conflict. Sometimes when people adopt learned behaviors, the intercessor (that would be me or another lawyer or mediator) has to look past the surface. It’s especially true with leopard movements, since so many people have been exposed to them.

When I was first learning how to mediate, I was in a session in which one of the parties was a contractor. I can’t remember the issues or how much they were arguing about, but I noticed the contractor starting to slash his hands around with characteristic leopard-like movements. It was striking: he was even moving the core of his body like a leopard. He was actually so close to being out of control that I felt there was a physical risk. It was a tough call: call off or suspend the session for safety, let him continue on the verbal attack until his juices stopped flowing, or intervene? Fortunately, the contractor limited his physical aggression to table pounding. The person on the other side of the table could take it, avoiding the personal nature of the attacks without getting too riled up. I think he carried himself like a snake (the subject of a future post). As Mr. Leopard wore himself out, his attention could be redirected to a more constructive place. As he physically relaxed, his movements even changed to be less jerky, suggesting that, perhaps, somewhere along the way, he had learned a response to conflict that worked some of the time, but tired him out even more than it would a natural leopard type. The parties eventually settled on a creative solution.