Did you know that Bruce Lee was nearsighted? He started off studying a martial art that specializes in close-in combat, Wing Chun, so he could keep fighting even if he lost a contact lens. Since one of his legs was shorter than the other, he often kicked with the longer leg to extend his reach. Since he was not a tall man, he chose techniques that did not rely on domineering size and worked tirelessly at developing his physical power. By preparation, he turned weakness into strength.
Nobody is perfect. No situation is perfect. When conflict happens, how do we handle the fact that we are probably not in an ideal place to resolve it? Maybe some of these circumstances sound familiar:
- You are nervous at having to confront someone or angry at being confronted.
- You want or need more than you think you are likely to get.
- Someone else – a boss or a spouse, maybe – wants you to achieve something in the conflict. The extra pressure makes you feel like just a mouthpiece.
- The other party seems to hold all the cards.
- The other party’s personality grates on your nerves.
- There is unreasonable time pressure to reach a resolution.
- You feel drained even thinking about the conflict.
One of the things you can do, like Bruce Lee, is to prepare. You can turn each of these entirely reasonable concerns into a source of strength. For instance:
- If your natural inclination when you are nervous or angry is to rehearse the situation ahead of time in your head, then when the time comes for the difficult conversation, you will have thought through the permutations. You will be in a better position to control your nerves and your anger. Link that adrenaline edge to your thinking.
- If you think you cannot get something from a negotiation, remember the words of the martial arts teachers: when you punch, picture punching through your target so you do not slow down right before contact. Trick yourself, if you have to, to be sure you are not holding yourself back.
- If your boss is pushing you to do unreasonable things, or your spouse is not willing to listen to the other party’s reasoning, you have a second confrontation going on with the people on your own side. Address them, and your side becomes stronger.
- Necessity is the mother of invention. If you have no room to bargain, get creative. If the car dealer refuses drop the price further, get it to throw in the mats for free.
- If someone’s personality grates on your nerves, your personality probably grates on his nerves, too. If you can control yourself, you might be able to use his irritation to keep him off balance.
- Time pressure is a two-edged sword. While it adds stress, it puts limits on the discussion and forces the participants to move forward toward resolution rather than getting hung up. You can use the pressure to help your counterparty over a hump.
- If you are tired of fighting, you are ready for resolution. As you get more practice thinking about everyday negotiations as a kind of conflict, you get more fortitude to continue discussions. As you exercise your abilities, you learn to outlast your counterparties, and that gives you an advantage.
What at first seems like a weakness may actually be a guide for how to use your strength.
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.