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.
Conflict is a part of life. There are techniques we use, more or less effectively, to deal with conflict. Some are instinctive, and some are learned.
I’m calling this blog Kung Fu Mediation for two reasons. One is that in Chinese, the term gongfu can refer to any skill gained over long effort. If you chi ku – “eat bitter” – by really working at something, you can develop a gongfu of that activity. A 30-hour mediation training is a good start, but it takes many more hours of study and reflective practice to become good at it. You have to keep working at it too. There is always more to learn about negotiation and dispute resolution.
The other reason for the Kung Fu Mediation blog is to explore what the world of martial arts has to teach us about everyday conflict. After all, both kung fu and mediation are effective means of conflict resolution! Remember that our bodies are wired for physical conflict. We respond in similar ways regardless of whether the conflict is physical or verbal. If we are under stress, our heart rate goes up and our muscles tense. If we are afraid, our eyes lose focus and cast about for an escape route, and if we are angry our awareness focuses in on the person causing us agita. Our hands may ball into fists or grasp our pencils more tightly than usual. It doesn’t matter whether we will be using those fists to resolve the conflict or whether we will be using tools more appropriate to abstract battles over resources or respect. No matter how rational our strategies and tactics seem, they interact with some of the same cognitive and hormonal systems as if someone is swinging a punch at us.
That incoming punch is a great example. If you see someone’s fist flying at your face, what is your first reaction? Is it to duck, or to hold your hands up to protect yourself, or to stand there and see what happens when it makes contact? In martial arts, the first two are considered to be ways of blocking the punch, one a yin block and one a yang block. They are instinctive. They are good things. The third is considered to be getting hit. That’s a bad thing.
In any negotiation, our first reaction is defensive. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are thinking, “You’re wrong. It isn’t like that. That’s not how it happened. You aren’t doing it right.” Sometimes people even hold up their hands to say “Whoa” when someone says something they perceive as an attack, just as if they saw something coming toward their face. The reason why is, as the phrase goes, “so you can live to fight another day.”
And that’s the second piece, striking back. Every beginning martial arts student learns that a block alone is not enough, most of the time, since your attacker has more limbs to hit you with. You learn to block, then strike, and as you get more experience to do both at the same time. The hard part is figuring out which block and which strike to use when, because our instinct is to lash out. It gets complicated. Baguazhang, a martial art based on a mashup of the Yi Jing and Zen circle walking, divides the defense and counterattack world into 8 types of redirection (a block that, like the Dao, circles and goes with the flow of the opponent’s energy) and 8 types of strikes for a total of 64 basic combinations, matching up with the number of hexagrams. Just as it takes a ridiculous amount of effort hold that level of complexity in your head for any length of time even in a non-pressured situation, the complexities of interpersonal conflict can also be hard to keep straight. Some people’s default mode is to lash out at the first provocation and some people’s is to put up with the punches for a long time before exploding, in each case without regard to subtlety.
In mediation or as anyone trying to bargain for anything, we have to recognize that some very successful people never got far past that instinctual explosive defense-attack. Not only do we have to find a way to redirect the punch, we have to get the other party to learn how to do the same. Otherwise, it is very difficult to reach agreement with someone who only responds defensively. Sometimes, the mediator’s job is to stand in the middle and redirect both parties’ punches so they can learn to speak with each other.
In a divorce I once mediated, the parties were so entrenched in defensive anger that even by the third session they could only talk to me, not to each other, without screaming. It was the verbal equivalent of wild, swinging punches. Before they could move on and resolve what were essentially economic issues, each had to figure out what they were defending – what their real interests were. They had to realize that the confrontational interpersonal style that had failed them during their marriage was a roadblock to their divorce and to the cooperation that they would need going forward with their children. We had to work on redirecting their anger to create a space within which they could focus. Later, when I started applying some of the lessons from that mediation in commercial contexts, they transferred over pretty readily (I’m really slow sometimes).
Every interaction contains the potential for conflict. The better we can deal with it, the better it is for both our personal and professional lives. There are lessons for us in the martial arts.