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.
Here’s a martial arts secret that is not really so secret: each movement in a form can have more than one application.
In Tai Chi, for instance, it is said that each movement has at least four applications: a block, a strike, a joint lock and a throw. Take the famous “Wave Hands Like Clouds,” for example. As you shift your weight to your right foot, your right hand waves slowly across your face, then moves in a circle downward as you shift your weight to your left foot and your left hand comes up to wave slowly across your face. Block a punch to the face? Sure, as your hand comes up and across. Strike your opponent’s face? Sure, if you’re close enough. Joint lock? It slips directly into one called “Dragon Holds A Ball” in external forms. Throw? Create the joint lock and keep the circular energy going around and down to the ground, following your counterpart’s body.
Different negotiators and different mediators have different styles. No one style or application of that style is the “right” one all the time. If you figure out your own style and master it, though, you will be able to pick and choose your approach to a given challenge, the way the kung fu master might use a block or redirect in one context but in a more violent one fling an opponent face first onto the floor.
Take our hypothetical Tai Chi negotiator. As he is sitting in his conference room, someone across the table makes a ridiculous demand.
–The block: He can swat it away and dismiss it, then go one with the conversation. It would be the “you don’t need that, let’s move on” approach.
–The strike: He can counter with an equally ridiculous demand, setting up what negotiation theorists call a positional bargaining situation rather than an interest-based negotiation. His strike will be followed by a block and possibly a counteroffer. “A thousand dollars? Maybe a hundred at most.”
–The joint lock: He can engage in a substantive discussion and try to pin his counterparty down. Talking smoothly, the noose tightens.
–The throw: While seeming to draw his counterparty into a substantive discussion, he can flip the ridiculous offer into something that embarrasses his counterparty into concession. Wait for the counterparty to tap out.
All this takes mastery. It is easy to say, “Talk smoothly,” but actually being able to do it is a significant skill. It is easy to say, “Flip that jerk across the table onto his face,” but it is at least as hard to do that figuratively as it is to do it literally. Think about it in your next negotiation. If you are wearing a mediator’s hat, think about guiding the parties into the right negotiating modes. Chances are, they will already be in a block-strike pattern when they walk through the door.
If you come to the table with the mindset of a kung fu master, you will know what to 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.
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.
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.
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.