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Kung Fu Tactics in Negotiation: Using Soft Techniques

water drop

We Americans are raised in a culture that values directness and aggression.  As a result, most of us have a hard time grasping one of the great negotiating skills:  softness and strategic yielding.  While it may be difficult to master, it can be disarming and effective.

In his forward to Yang Chengfu’s The Essence and Application of Taijiquan, Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing) writes, “The way that softness subdues hardness is gradual, while the way hardness subdues softness is abrupt.  Abrubtness is easy to detect, so is easily defeated.  It is more difficult to sense gradualness, so it often prevails.”  People often think of “soft” as meaning “weak” and “hard” as being powerful, especially when it comes to physical fights.  Yet anyone who has ever seen a taiji (tai chi) fighter  knows that yielding and neutralizing can be incredibly powerful techniques (check out some of the endless online video clips).  If you are not there when your opponent strikes, he may be thrown off balance, leaving an opening for your counterattack.  That is especially true if his punch is hard and abrupt, leaving him no way to respond to you other than to hope he can pull back and reload.  The art comes in making him think you are there, right up until the last instant – a technique from internal martial arts like taiji “push hands.”  A variation from the external martial arts is known as a “yin” block, or disappearing from the place your opponent is trying to contact, as opposed to a “yang” block like knocking a punch out of the way.  Some of the Crane techniques are great examples.

How do “soft” and “hard” work in negotiations?  The key to “hard” is full frontal strength, over-muscling your counterpart.  That works if you are big enough, but try negotiating the boilerplate in your car lease and see how far you get.

There are two keys to “soft.”  Knowing how to yield may mean picking your battles and not making every point a bone of contention, like you have to do when dealing with a difficult two year old.  It may mean seeming to acquiesce, in whole or in part.  It may even mean asking for more and more explanations, or spending time on ancillary issues.  These are all techniques you can use for other reasons in any conversation, but they are also techniques for yielding and neutralizing.

The other key is timing.  Sometimes when you ask people to explain themselves over and over again because you just do not get what they are saying, they wear themselves out.  You can feel them starting to hear their own logical gaps, and then you come in with a counter to move them off their position.  When you have circled around an issue for long enough, your counterpart may grow impatient and feel the need to jump into the more difficult issue in an awkward way that sets you up in a better position.

The essence is to pay attention to the gaps.  It is traditionally referred to as the old strength being exhausted:  your time to strike is the moment between your counterpart’s extension of the old punch and its retraction in preparation for the new.  Consider that in the ebb and flow of the conversation.