Kung Fu Conflict Resolution


Bruce Lee and Yip Man practicing Wing Chun Chi Sao, or "Sticking Hands": a metaphor for collaborative conflict resolution.

MOST EMPLOYEES, MANAGERS, AND EXECUTIVES FACE CONFLICTS ON A DAILY BASIS, and can spend between 20% and 80% of their time at work trying to resolve them. Unfortunately few of us have been trained to deal with conflicts that arise at work. Managers are generally not trained in dispute resolution, and employees are generally not oriented towards collaborative negotiation or creative problem solving. The cost of conflict, especially chronic conflict, is enormous, both emotionally and financially. Every organization–corporate, non profit, government, school–generates conflicts. Paradoxically, we need to recast conflicts as opportunities for growth and learning, both personal and collective.

There is no simple conflict resolution formula; each one of us has to navigate our own way with our opponent.Yet there are strategies that can empower us. In conflict, the only way out is through. Paradoxically again, here are 12 lessons in conflict resolution that we can learn from the Chinese martial arts. Because of the connection to the Shaolin temple and its philosophies, these fighting arts are ultimately about self mastery. Similarly, conflict resolution is not really about your opponent; it may be more useful to think about it in terms of self discovery, self mastery, and self actualization.

1. Enter the Eye of the Storm. In facing an opponent with a club, you have to move into the attack to successfully disarm your opponent. The lesson is not to recoil, not to avoid, but rather meet your opponent face to face and connect in the calm center of the storm. In this place, opposition and antagonism can be transcended, and learning and insight are possible. Entering the eye of the storm is the meta-strategy for conflict resolution.

"Enter the Eye of the Storm": the Core or Meta-Strategy for Conflict Resolution

2. Find Harmony with your Opponent.  As you complement your opponent’s moves and flow with them, underneath that “iceberg of conflict” (personalities, emotions, hidden expectations, unresolved issues), there is a sense that we are interconnected as human beings. Learn to separate people from behaviors and problems, and move from “me” vs “them” to “us” vs “it”.  This allows us to be paradoxically softer on the human being and tougher on the problem or behavior! Through the practice of Wing Chun Chi Sao, or Sticking Hands, we explore a metaphor for a collaborative process that aims at true resolution of underlying issues, as opposed to a superficial settling of conflicts. Do not see your opponent in the image of the enemy.

3. See Conflict as “Opportunity” or “Journey”. It might be more useful to shift the underlying metaphor of conflict, from “conflict as war” to “conflict as opportunity” or “conflict as journey”. The opportunity metaphor presents us with possibilities for transformation, both personal and collective. The journey metaphor sees conflict either as an external journey in search of a wise opponent, or as an internal journey in search of the authentic Self. You can also then re-frame the workplace as the Kung Fu Kwoon (academy) where you practice conflict resolution skills for personal and team transformation and growth.

4. Express Yourself Honestly. Bruce Lee is fond of saying the goal of martial arts is to “express yourself honestly”. In Wing Chun, the Centre Line is the vertical axis that passes through your head and the core of the body. All attacks and defenses originate here. Punching from your center line is like acting from your authentic self, in other words, learning to be honest with ourselves and communicating honestly with others.  However, when giving feedback, it is important to temper honesty with empathy, otherwise that honesty can come out as aggression. Then invite your opponent to give you honest and empathetic feedback as well! Without honesty, there is little chance that underlying conflicts will be dealt with.

5. Learn the Basic Forms. In Wing Chun we learn forms (sequences of moves) such as the Sil Lum Tao in order to master the basic arm blocks and attacks. Similarly, it’s important to learn the basics of conflict resolution: the 15 steps to effective communication, empathetic and responsive listening, the basic rules of feedback. Feedback rules include: always begin with a request for permission to offer it, open with a self assessment of the person giving it, do it in private, use “I” statements as opposed to “You” statements, and ask for feedback in turn from your opponent.

Conflict resolution is not really about your opponent; it is ultimately about self discovery, self mastery, and self actualization.

6. “Be Like Water” (Understand Yin and Yang). Bruce Lee says: “Be like water, my friend.” Water is fluid and adaptable; it takes the shape of its container, finds the lowest places, and can crash with irresistible force. In Wing Chun you have to alternate gentleness with firmness, letting strong attacks pass, and then hitting hard. Similarly, there are 5 responses to conflict, each with different combinations of gentleness and firmness: avoidance, accommodation, aggression, compromise, and collaboration (Thomas and Kilman). A skillful person will be able to “sidestep aggression” and use any of these 5 responses depending on the situation and people involved. Learn to be gentle, but not yielding; and firm but not hard.

7. Cultivate Forward Intention. In Wing Chun, we have a concept called “Forward Intention” which is a dynamic forward energy even when still. This allows us maximum flexibility to counter and flow with an opponent’s moves. In communicating or listening, your intention is also key. You can learn all the 15 steps to effective communication, but if your heart is not in it, your opponent will know.

8. Focus on the Present and the Future. We you’re defending a punch, you’re not concerned with what happened a moment ago. In other words, even though there have been many hurts and resentments built up from the past, it may be better to start all over and focus on what we can do now to create a better shared future. Wing Chung translates as “Hope for the Future”. Our work is to keep hope alive.

9. Master Emotional Expression. In Kung Fu, fear or anger can reduce your effectiveness in the midst of a fight. At work, suppressing, denying, avoiding, and giving in to negative emotions are not helpful. Rather, we have to learn to relax, feel, acknowledge, reframe, express, transcend, and integrate our emotions skillfully in order to unlock our conflicts. Trying to control or suppress emotions will probably lead to psychological shadow issues, so the approach would be rather let them roam around you freely, witness them, own them, integrate them, and let them self-liberate. For example, the next time you’re about to explode, try these: take three breaths, own your anger, feel it fully, express emotions by reframing and sharing your feelings nonjudmentally (“When you…I feel … because…”), ask clarifying questions, focus on solving the problem rather than blaming others, avoid the trap of responding defensively, take a time-out, perhaps apologize and start over.

10. Maintain your Guard. In Wing Chun, your arms are extended in a forward and rear guard which help prevent you from getting repeatedly hit in the face. Organizations that learn from their conflicts implement conflict resolution systems that prevent future disputes, or help them be resolved more quickly. The system design should be tailored to the organization and can include peer counseling and coaching, team building, strategic planning, collaborative negotiation, circles and group meetings, internal appeals boards, public dialogue and forums.

11. Keep a Grounded Stance. In Kung Fu, your stances are the foundation upon which all your attacks and defenses are launched. If you are not grounded in your stance, all actions are weakened. Chronic conflicts arise from weak stances or foundations in the organization, which can include: lack of agreement over values, vision, mission, and goals; lack of clarity and buy-in regarding roles, responsibilities, procedures; lack of support for collaboration and participation in decision making over important issues; lack of clear, courageous, and inclusive leadership. One of the best ways to deal with underlying chronic conflict is to engage in “democratic strategic planning”–there is less resistance to implementation when people who are impacted have had a say in defining the values, vision, mission, and the plan!

12. 3 Stages of Cultivation. The three stages of learning an art are: the Primitive Stage, the Stage of Art, the Stage of Artlessness. In martial arts, we study with a master, a Sifu, and we learn through mistakes! So get some coaching or training and get the first 10000 conflict resolution mistakes over with as quickly as possible. Then you’re on to the next 10000 mistakes! Learn the rules, keep to the rules, then dissolve the rules. Conflict resolution is not really about your opponent; it’s ultimately about you: self discovery, self mastery, and self actualization.

(Material from “Resolving Conflicts at Work” by K. Cloke and J. Goldsmith; “Tao of Gung Fu” by Bruce Lee)

Video: Bruce Lee talking about the spiritual insights from Kung Fu