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How to Negotiate Like a Kung Fu Master: Snakes Versus Cranes

King Cobra Snake



The kung fu master must size up his opponent. One of the things he looks for is how the opponent is likely to attack or respond. In the Shaolin five animal-five element system, the way a person’s body moves and his or her innate approach to conflict drift toward certain of the animal archetypes. People are leopards, snakes, tigers, cranes and dragons in different measures. Each animal is associated with one of the five traditional Chinese elements: wood, earth, fire, air and water, respectively. It’s not just for kid’s movies! People follow the same approaches in negotiation. You can learn to pick up on it.

Air and earth are opposites, yet connected. There is a well-known martial arts legend about a kung fu master’s observing a fight between a snake and a crane. The crane struck and the snake coiled out of the way, then the snake struck and the crane brushed it out of the way. The master went on to develop techniques that mimicked the animals.

In conversations, people who channel their inner crane often prefer to evade sharp, unpleasant truths jabbing at them, even as they politely lance out themselves. When they do engage they may prefer to stick to abstractions, principles and the big picture. We see this often among mid-level businesspeople from certain Asian countries. It is something their culture has selected for. People who are channeling their inner snake, the predominant type among mid-level American businesspeople, may prefer details. Listen to whether people are using inductive or deductive reasoning, whether they work from concepts and apply them to real-world situations (crane) or work from details and use them to build concepts (snake). These two types may sound like they are speaking together, but they are really speaking two different languages. In the world of money, think of economist and manager: the perspective from which they discuss dollars is very different.

As a concrete example, think of a discussion within a manufacturing company about whether to expand a certain aspect of the business. One person speaks in generalizations of corporate strategy and macroeconomics. If the generalizations sound internally consistent they may indicate the way she thinks, but if not they may be like patches holding together an argument based on interests that are yet to be revealed. Someone else goes right to the numbers, or the practicalities of a staffing issue. The first speaker’s connection of the decision to the corporate mission statement seems to elude him. It may be hard to hear coherence amidst the detail, but one can listen for whether the details are obfuscation tactics or that person’s actual understanding of the situation.

Many of us have encountered similar contrasts in family arguments. Listen for words like “always,” as compared to a concrete focus on detail: “You’ve always acted like you don’t care about _____, so why are you bringing it up now,” versus, “I remember a Tuesday night four years ago when I came home from work and you said very clearly, ‘_________.'” While both charges may be redirection or misdirection tactics having nothing to do with the real concerns, they may also reflect actual ways of thinking.

Different walks of life attract different personality types in different cultures. Listen for the patterns. Being able to read the person sitting across the table from you will help you in your next negotiation. It can also help you manage the conflict that can arise from different ways of thinking and speaking.

Shamanism, Martial Arts And Negotiation?

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.

Figurine of unknown origin doing exercise similar to Chi Gong

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.

Negotiating With A Snake

King Cobra Snake

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.