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.
Everyone knows how to make a fist, right? It’s instinctive. When you get mad, your hand balls up. Even so, there is some skill to ye olde fist that they teach in basic kung fu class. Clasp your fingers tightly to protect them; keep your thumb on the outside, wrapped tightly around your second knuckle; and angle your hand downward and outward so that there is a straight line between your first two knuckles and your elbow.
It turns out I can’t make a good fist. My fingers are attached to the knuckles in such a way that my index finger sticks out too far. Even after years of martial arts training, I am likely to hurt my hand if I give a good strong punch. I have to be careful. It is not a major problem, though. As my studies progressed, I learned that there are dozens if not hundreds of different ways to hold your hand to strike or grab, with names that sound like they come from bad action movies: hammer fist, tiger claw, dragon claw, crane’s beak, snake punch, unicorn strike. “Fist like an arrow,” or the straight punch, is only one of them. Some of them work for me, like the styles they come from. Others do not.
The same is true of negotiation. Some people take the first instinctive course that comes to mind, acting directly and with instant escalation of the argument. It can be easier to lash out at provocation than to step back and ask yourself, “How can I get what I need from this interaction?” How many times have you seen someone try to push his position across by force regardless of his relative bargaining power rather than appeal to whatever reason, emotion or externality will convince his counterparty? It is like using a regular fist against a wall, or using your strength to try to block a linebacker. Maybe you can do pull it off, maybe it is a legitimate response to the circumstances, but it does not always make sense. It can be a strategic error.
The flip side is that many people fall back when faced with aggression. That can be a legitimate response, too, but is it the right one at the right time?
In a real physical interaction, you would respond to provocation with an appropriate level of reaction. If you are under threat of horrible injury, your goal may be instant savage incapacitation. Most of us are better off crossing the street to avoid the threat. If you have to engage, then you may be best off with a quick incapacitating blow rather than the limb shattering moves of most kung fu street fighting forms. Otherwise, you may be the one who ends up in jail. In a verbal argument, there are also levels of response. Consider an argument with your spouse. “Another way to look at it might be …” may be a better way to make your point than, “Stop acting like your mother!” Take a step back. Pause. Then decide: maybe deflect, maybe engage in a surgical strike, maybe walk away. Think about the range of what you can do.
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.
Tiger kung fu forms can be fun to practice. They often have big, athletic movements with leaps and yells. The outer layer of applications is easy to see (although each form still has layer upon layer of hidden applications).
Not every movement is a useful application for everyone, though. Many tiger movements work best for big, athletic people, but not so much for smaller folks. After all, in the wild, the tiger is a large and powerful predator.
On the flip side, not every big, athletic person moves like a tiger. The physiology of the tiger has certain requirements, but a person must have the right neurology, too. Some people are more lumbering than aggressive, or don’t have the coordination to do well with some of the more circular movements.
In a negotiation, some people use their positions within their organizations to let loose their aggressions. We see this often in lawyers: in their personal lives they may be meek, but when they are arguing on behalf of someone else they can be aggressive to the point of being offensive. Like people who just go through the motions of being a tiger, it is not what they really are, and to many of their counterparties the inauthenticity is more annoying than effective. One tactic you can take with the fake tiger is to follow the classic Art of War: “If you know your enemy has a bad temper, seek to irritate him!” Then he will make mistakes. Alternatively, you can also appeal to his vanity or insecurity.
If you negotiate from a point of inauthenticity, your counterparty can take advantage of your weakness. The fake tiger isn’t really passionate, just a loudmouth. The fake snake isn’t really cunning, just transparently sneaky. Learn your own natural negotiating style! As the Art of War also advises, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will face a hundred battles without danger.”
Next post, we will go back to the big-picture discussion with the Shaolin Crane, but first I wanted to give you a sense of how these academic-sounding themes can play out in the real world.
Negotiating with a tiger, whose element is fire, requires the fortitude to be on the receiving end of aggression. Or Teflon-coated skin.
In the wild, a tiger on the attack uses big swipes of its paws to bash its prey as it leaps, ripping chunks of flesh as it knocks down its dinner. Its teeth are not the only danger. Shaolin tiger forms are often leaping, crushing, ripping, screaming, multi-level displays of naked aggression. The famous kung fu tiger claw starts with a bone-crunching strike with the heel of the palm, followed by the claws digging into an opponent’s flesh. People who interact like the Shaolin tiger can be aggressive and energetic, using expansive gestures or language and having the potential to become remarkably vicious when aroused.
Tiger people can be blustery and need to throw their weight around. Sometimes, they are large people who grew up that way. Sometimes, they are angry to the core, for reasons that we can’t even guess. If they are able to channel and control these tendencies, they can be effective. It can be difficult to avoid being engulfed by their passion for the subject matter of the negotiation or their apparent fury at the dispute. However, they may have a hard time seeing how aggression is not always the best first-line approach to interpersonal relations. Some used car salesmen are tigers.
The negotiator has to be careful to distinguish between tigers and leopards. Both come out swinging, but actual tigers are bigger animals. In the Hung Gar Tiger-Crane form, many tiger movements are larger and more circular, with heavy involvement of the pectorals, while leopard movements tend to be shorter, straighter and choppier. Sometimes one can pick up subtleties in the way agitated counterparties gesticulate, but more often one has to gather clues from the subtle energy each brings to the room. Tigers give a sense of a larger, fiery presence filling the room. When they get going, they may burn out, like the leopard, but more likely they will appreciate an appeal to the emotions to calm them down (water extinguishes fire, in the elemental system). Techniques used by mediators to validate and normalize emotions are often particularly effective.
Be aware that tiger types, consistent with the elemental theme, may engage in scorched earth tactics. In my experience, they do have a tendency to see the world as a zero sum game if they feel cornered. Try to make use of their passions to turn the discussion positive.
I have much more to say about tigers. Check back again soon.
Negotiating with the snake, whose element is earth, takes careful concentration.
The snake has no hands. It slithers on its stomach. The snake rears up, then waits patiently to strike and quickly coils back. In some kung fu systems, it may even squeeze its prey. The organ systems associated with the earth element are the stomach and spleen, and practitioners of snake forms must have strong and strangely flexible abdomens. They withdraw from a punch by coiling in their stomachs and explode outward in a precise attack driven by those coiled muscles. As the abdomen is where their power lies, so it is where tension is stored.
Snakes in the wild elicit primal fear. In Western society, the snake has negative connotations associated with the eviction from the Garden of Eden. In the Bible, Jacob develops sciatica after a victorious wrestling match with archetypal overtones, and to this day kosher-keepers don’t eat cuts of meat containing the gid nahash, or snake nerve. In India, the kundalini energy climbing the spine is pictured as a snake. In China, the snake is treated with such respect that its archetype gets used not only in martial arts but also in astrology.
Snake people are grounded and patient. Patience can come across as sneakiness or, if they let you into their game, quiet planning. In the real world, these skills can pay off, so one should not be surprised to find ambitious snake people in leadership positions. In the negative aspect of the archetype, you may not know quite where you stand with them.
How can you identify them walking into your office? They often seem impassive, like a Japanese sarariman standing behind his boss. They may have economy of movement, but since most people tense up under stress that’s hard to pick out. The hand on the knotted stomach may be a sign, but it’s common enough not to be dispositive. Rarely, I have seen people move unconsciously with subtle juts and retreats of the stomach, but that’s really hard to pick out since people in negotiations are generally clothed! My kung fu teachers have told me that it’s even hard for them as practiced observers to see if students are moving properly, since “the snake is the most internal of the animal forms.” Usually we have to rely on other clues.
One deals with a snake by recognizing that, as someone who prefers being grounded, details matter. He will happily lose himself in them and avoid abstracting to the larger situation. He may even get so distracted by them he cannot reach a conclusion without help. You must start with details but work on getting him to see the big picture. Opening with talk of big principles will bore him; he will not hear them, like a colorblind person being asked to pick out the big red block.
There comes a moment in many negotiations and mediations where one side suddenly sees the other’s perspective. There may not be agreement on whether it’s valid, but that transformation brings down a certain barrier of “otherness” and lets the disputants either begin to build a common story or let go of their own story and the need to prove it so they can focus on the bottom line. It’s tough to get there with a true snake, but it can be done if you chip away slowly.
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.