You are walking away at the end of the argument. Your hands are shaky and clammy.
Or you are walking from your lawyer’s office or a mediation session. Although you reached a settlement, you are tired and wired. It has not sunk in yet: this battle is almost done.
Or the arbitrator’s decision is sitting unopened in your inbox. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and your throat closes as you reach for the mouse.
Or you are sitting sullenly across the table from your spouse after exhausting all words. You avoid eye contact, concerned that the fight might start back up even though you are no longer sure what sparked it.
Or, for that matter, you’ve been play-sparring in your martial arts or boxing school and still feel all pumped up.
People become attached to conflict. It does not matter who you are, or whether you are fighting on behalf of yourself or your organization. As a conflict is prolonged, people repeat and rehearse the story over and over again in their minds. When it is time to move on, it can be hard to disengage.
At the same time, the stress of conflict manifests itself physically. Cortisol and adrenaline are flowing through your veins; muscles are tensed in your shoulders or wherever else in your body you store tension; and the sheen of sweat on your face visibly thickens as the day goes on. Left alone, all this is poisonous: it can be unpleasant and seriously affect work performance or even daily life after the conflict is done. Addressing conflict poison is not touchy-feely or new-agey. It’s practical.
So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- At an immediately practical level, even though the moment of most intense conflict has passed, the final resolution may require you to take affirmative steps. These steps may include working with attorneys on settlement documentation, figuring out how to come up with a payment you are not happy about making, managing internal repercussions within your organization or with a spouse or reorganizing your schedule to meet new responsibilities. These activities are vital on two levels, both doing what you need to do to complete the resolution process and, psychologically, transitioning away from conflict.
- Get the conflict out of your body. Exercise, lots of fluids to wash the toxins away, getting a massage, doing yoga or taiji, meditating if that is your thing – before you have that drink! Although our built-in response to conflict is fight, flight or freeze, in the kind of conflicts you are likely to find yourself the chemistry of that response is not helpful for refocusing once the conflict is done. Get that stuff out of your system or it may stick with you and slow down the process of moving on.
- Look forward, not backward. People often tend to ruminate about the past. Now is the time to answer the mediator’s question about what life looks like after the conflict – whether it is in your personal or professional life. Act consciously. Managers should seek new responsibilities; those in less authority should wrap up their involvement and move on to the next project; individual disputants should seek out personal interactions in which the conflict is not the main topic of conversation. You know what to do. In time you will stop thinking about how things might have turned out.
Start planning beforehand: how are you going to put the brakes on so you can go forward?
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.
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.
Sorry, this is a strange post, even for an offbeat blog like this one!
I’ve recently come across a couple of articles suggesting that the origin of martial arts lies in ancient shamanistic practices rather than the practical need for self-defense. For instance, there’s this article on “Shamanism and the Origins of Martial Arts,” and this article on “The Shamanic Origins of Tai Chi.” The latter article begins by describing how much a “spirit dance” by a shaman of the Ka-ren tribe in Thailand reminded the author of tai chi.
These ideas are interesting, particularly since the shamanic roots of Daoism are well-accepted in academic literature. As all you kung fu masters and other readers know, Daoism has played a key role in the development of tai chi and other martial arts. The way most of us practice, though, the ideas are a bit of a stretch – but if you feel like you are channeling a noncorporeal snake during training, who am I to argue? Teachers have been telling me for years to figure out how to BE a leopard, so I hope somebody gets it even if it eludes me! The fact that this is an often-used teaching method suggests that there is something to it, even if you are not a member of an animist tribe.
As an armchair anthropologist (who actually spent some time among the Ka-ren, a long time ago), I wonder how this carries over to daily life. If a modern person negotiates with the intense, quiet focus of a snake, is he engaging in the contemporary equivalent of a shamanistic spirit dance? Does the answer vary culturally, depending on whether that person is a woman in Boston or a man in the Philippines? It would make a nice research paper for someone.
With some mediators I know, the answer is clearly closer to yes! The Wikipedia definition of shamanism states, “Shamans act as mediators in their culture” (mediating between the living and the spiritual world). The Association for Conflict Resolution has a Spirituality section. Many mediators are explicitly motivated by religious ideas – I can name half a dozen people who have expressed this to me in terms their own backgrounds, as pastoral obligation, doing God’s will on earth, healing the world, etc. Some of these people are incredibly effective.
If this sense is a motivation for your work as an advocate, negotiator, mediator or even arbitrator – whether you want to BE the tiger or BE the balancing point – you can take it to the next level. Try adding in some physical elements, like those the shamans use. Kung fu training may give you an archetypal boost.
Translated literally as “Eight Trigrams Palm,” the martial art of Ba Gua Chang is traditionally only taught to students who have first achieved a black belt in another discipline. It is said that anyone can learn the art of Taiji; one in 50 can learn the art of Xing Yi, another internal style; and only one in 100 can learn Ba Gua. It can be that complicated.
Ba Gua is a mashup of Zen circle walking, aspects of the Yi Jing (I Ching) and many different internal and external martial arts forms. People in China even attribute semi-magical qualities to it, like rebuilding qi to recapture youth. Some say that Ba Gua is one of the root practices of aikido, and the expert practitioner indeed moves like the aikido master, smoothly and effortlessly floating from one movement to the next. If you want to learn more about Ba Gua, check out masters Bruce Frantzis at http://www.energyarts.com and Jerry Cook at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0na1tpjkh1Y.
What does it have to do with negotiation, mediation or arbitration? If we look to the foundational exercise of this system, it becomes clearer. The root of Ba Gua is walking in a circle like the Zen masters. Pick a clear area 3-5 feet across. Raise your arms up into a guard position, with your right hand at shoulder level, slightly higher and further extended than the left. Start walking in a circle toward your right (clockwise), always keeping your shoulder and hand pointed toward the center of the circle. Step with your feet flat. Keep going. After a couple of times around, switch to your left hand, left shoulder, left direction. Do it again, then switch back. If you want to take it to the next level, always keep your eyes on the tip of your finger as the blade of your hand faces the center. Start circle walking just a few minutes at a time before you build up to more.
The key word here is “center.” You are circling the center, which when you get to applications will enable you to circle around the person attacking you. You are moving around the circle, which will enable you to move smoothly into some nasty joint locks and throws. Your focus is always on the center, not directly forward or on yourself, so you are always able to be flexible with your tactics.
Likewise, in a negotiation, your eyes need to be on the center: the reason you are in the negotiation. If your eyes are directly forward, you may get locked into a path without realizing why, or maybe even confuse that path with your real goals. If your eyes are on yourself, you may be too protective, and in your concern about being hit you will lose sight of your goals. If your strategies do not revolve around your real goals, you may be too easily deflected.
In a mediation, be prepared to circle behind the other party or even the mediator. You can do that if your attention stays on your goals, and if you are prepared to be flexible in the way you reach those goals. During this type of intensive negotiation, the circumstances are constantly shifting, and you need to be able to adapt.
In an arbitration, keep your focus on the center, the core of your argument. Try to move smoothly from one presentation of evidence to another, creating as even a flow as possible with no breaks in the argument. Take charge of the room like the Ba Gua master who looks like he is doing a solo ballroom dance even though each of his small movements can be devastating.
Ba Gua is designed so that one can fight eight people at once! It has major application in multiparty negotiations, settlement discussions or arbitration. When there are so many agendas on the table and so much complexity of competing demands, personalities and information flow, it is easy to be distracted and overwhelmed. Keep your focus on the center so you are prepared to ward off or attack each one of the other participants. The number of possible responses multiplies like the number eight in Ba Gua applications, Daoist thought or Chinese superstition, but unless you keep that focus you will get lost in the detail and have no power behind your implementation.
If there is one thing to remember about Ba Gua, it is this: if you focus on your goal despite chaos and try not to get locked in to a particular solution, you will be ready for whatever conflict your situation throws at you. It is another way of looking at interest-based negotiation.
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.
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.
Active listening can be difficult for four main reasons. One is force of habit. Many people follow the same pattern in every interaction. It varies culturally, but one common pattern for negotiators in the US is to start nice, go through the list of issues, get testy, withdraw and sulk, come back reluctantly, then reach agreement. People are so stuck in their pattern there is no room to listen. Another is distraction from our own internal chatter and moment to moment physical discomforts – the psychologists use the term “internal distractors.” The third is difficulty in connecting with others, which is sometimes a skill that has not been learned and sometimes, as with people on the autistic spectrum, a biological difficulty. The fourth is learning to listen without judging. Most people can learn to do better.
For many people, learning to quiet and bypass internal distractors is a very powerful tool. Any form of meditation will help with the sound of our own voices in our heads, which then helps with listening. Accepting one’s own physical discomfort in the process also helps with the judging bit. That represents at least two of the four roadblocks to listening.
There is also a very easy qigong exercise to start building your potential. It is called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. For the first position, take your shoes off and stand up. Keep your arms out from your body slightly. Feel a weight pulling at your tailbone, and lightness in the crown of your head like a balloon is pulling it upward. Breathe naturally with your diaphragm, so that you can feel your stomach rising and falling with each breath. Now just stand there. Feel the alignment of your body and any other internal sensations that come to you. Start with a minute or two at a time. Work your way up. When you get to five minutes you will start to see results. 20 minutes is a good goal, since we naturally seem to move in 20-minute cycles of concentration. This position is called Wu Ji, a term from Daoist theology referring to the formless void before creation from which the world ultimately flows – kind of like the “darkness on the face of the waters” from the book of Genesis. While one can get mystical about this exercise, it is immensely practical, both in terms of health benefits (balance, strength, alignment, reducing tension, even some minimal cardio) and increasing the ability to listen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it even increases the amount of qi available to you. For those readers looking for kung fu tactics, standing practice is the fundamental exercise for developing internal strength in taiji and certain other internal martial arts. All the fancy hand-waving in the world does no good without the strength to back it up.
There are many further levels of zhan zhuang, but this one is a good start. Give it a try. Whether your goal is to be a better martial artist, mediator, arbitrator or negotiator, listening is a critical skill, and if you can get physical benefits out of the learning process, so much the better.
In the first few hours of basic mediation training, beginning students are exposed to a concept called “active listening.” It involves really listening, letting people know that you are hearing them without judging. Since one of the drivers of conflict can be people’s sense that they are not being heard, addressing that need is a fundamental element of conflict resolution.
Therapists are good at it. Many lawyers have trouble, since they are more used to talking than listening. While some people do have an innate talent for listening well, most people can learn how to listen better with practice.
Active listening dovetails very nicely with a set of skills from taiji (or t’ai chi, depending on how the word is Romanized). As you learn this complicated style, you also learn to listen to your own body to get the subtle internal movements right. Eventually, you learn to correct many of your own errors, because if you keep certain principles in mind mistakes simply feel wrong. Then, when you begin the two-person exercise called Push Hands, you learn to listen with your body to the other person’s movements. One of the Chinese words for listening is tingdong, literally meaning “to hear and to understand.” It does not come naturally, any more than active listening does to the new mediator, but one of the great health benefits of taiji is that it automatically carries over to other activities. After enough practice, you can even feel if you are breathing and walking wrong.
In a non-physical conflict, you can also learn to listen at a level beyond your ears. Normally, both the signal and the reception may be at an unconscious level. However, if you learn to listen to your own sensations that might otherwise be intellectualized or sensed as a random flux of hormones, if you learn to filter out internal noise, you might be able to pick up on others’ agitation and behavior patterns. Surprisingly, you might even be able to tell when people respond to signals you are telegraphing.
Next post, I’ll tell you how to use a qigong exercise to jump start your active listening.