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


Three Core Practices of Mindful Leadership


One of the main benefits of establishing a mindfulness practice in our lives is that it helps us develop a different relationship with ourselves so that we don’t get so caught up in the crap that our personalities go through. After hanging out at the San Francisco Zen Center and Boulder Integral, I’ve distilled three core practices for developing mindful leaders: concentrating, witnessing, and intending. Let’s unpack these three!

  1. Concentrating: Concentrating is about zeroing in and focusing on one single object of concentration. In is associated with doing and there is a sense of effort.
    • Practices include focusing on the breath, a visual object, or reciting a mantra.
    • Applications include structuring your work day into 25 min work periods where you focus on one or a few tasks only. When distractions (internal or external) arise, you track them, shelve them for later, and refocus. Take a 5 min break between work periods.
    • Benefits include a reconditioned nervous system, more efficient time management, and higher productivity.
  2. Witnessing: Witnessing is about zooming out and observing everything with equanimity, quite the opposite of concentrating. It is associated with being and there is a sense of effortlessness.
    • Practices include learning to simultaneously observe the outside world, your self sensing of your embodiment, and your emotions and thoughts.
    • Applications include allowing negative emotions to self liberate and expanding the gap between stimulus and response.
    • Benefits include higher resiliency, adaptability, and morale. One slowly learns to dis-identify with all finite objects that can be seen, including the personality, which leads to a lighter existence, shall we say.
  3. Intending: Intending is about using conscious intentions to develop certain qualities or to move toward certain goals. It is associated with guiding and there is a sense of purpose.
    • Practices include setting conscious intentions, visualizations, and positive self talk.
    • Applications include monitoring your behavior throughout the day to see if they are aligned with your intentions.
    • Benefits include a gradual increase in personal integrity (you’re closing the gaps between your intentions and behaviors).

Without concentrating, little gets done.

Without intending, the wrong thing gets done.

Without witnessing, there is no wisdom.


Enhancing Self Mastery through Kung Fu

Ip Man and Bruce Lee

PRACTICING THE MARTIAL ARTS, such as kung fu, can enhance self mastery. Self mastery for leaders involves recognizing, understanding, and managing the various elements of ourselves in order to increase leadership effectiveness and to have a higher quality of life experience!

Wing Chun is a sounthern style of Kung Fu with links to the Shaolin Temple; it was the style Bruce Lee studied under Yip Man. According to legend, Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, introduced Zen (Chan) meditation to the Shaolin Temple in the 6th century. He stressed that the martial arts were meant to promote spiritual development, not to show off skills or terrorize the local peasants. Bodhidharma is thus the founder of Shaolin boxing and the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China.

Wing Chun is based on several principles–such as center line theory, economy of motion, simplicity, and forward intention–which I believe can be very useful for leaders. I’d like to talk about the principle of forward intention today.

Wing Chun Principle: Forward Intention involves maintaining a dynamic forward energy even when still, which allows you to sense and counter an opponent’s movements with maximum economy of motion. Without sufficient forward intention, an opponent can simply collapse your guard. If forward intention spills over into forward momentum, your opponent can use your inertia against you. If your energy is misdirected, say off to the side, your opponent can use this against you and get inside your defenses!

What Does this Mean for Work?

No forward intention = lack of clear vision or intention, so your attention and actions are somewhat diffuse. e.g. “Our customer needs are changing, and it’s difficult to see how to adjust our strategies.”

Too much forward momentum = attachment to a vision that may no longer be useful. e.g. “Our customers will always remain loyal to our product.”

Misguided intention (off to the side) = misguided intentions lead to misguided actions. e.g. “Our actions aren’t aligned with our strategy! Didn’t we agree on a high volume, low cost per unit SALES strategy?”

Practical Application to Work:

  1. Set an intention for your day. e.g. to have a productive day at work.
  2. Back up with a visualization. e.g. What does success look, feel, and sound like?
  3. Follow up with positive self talk. e.g. “I will have a productive day and check email only during periods reserved for it!”
  4. As you go through the day, monitor behaviors to see if they align with the intention you’ve set for yourself. e.g. “I’m checking my email constantly and it’s affecting my productivity.”
Let’s look at some clips of Bruce!

Trouble Concentrating at Work? Try some Mindfulness Practice!

STUDIES REVEAL WE SPEND UP TO 50% of our time at work not focused on the task at hand. What if we could strengthen our personal “concentration” muscles? Perhaps we could really enhance personal, team and organizational productivity!

I invite you to perform an experiment with your own consciousness and try a basic Zen focusing technique (Soto Zen style, from the lineage of Dogen). Soto Zen emphasizes practice, practice, practice! Do Zazen, or sitting practice, for 10 min every morning for a week, and see what happens.

This sort of practice increases our concentration muscles and also strengthens our capacity to witness, so that we’re less likely to get caught up in the crap that we put ourselves through. The crap still happens, but Zen practice (or almost any type of meditative activity) decreases the likelihood that we identify with the crap. We begin to develop a different relationship with ourselves. What is the awareness that is aware of you?

Preparation for Basic Zazen (Sitting Practice):

  1. Sit with back straight (chair is fine) and don’t lean
  2. Keep your head balanced and don’t tip the head
  3. Face the wall (to minimize distraction)
  4. Keep eyes open, but lower the gaze slightly to calm the mind (keeping your eyes open helps prevent you from drifting off to sleep; if you do tend to fall asleep look straight ahead, and pinch yourself)
Basic Zazen Instructions (most of the following I picked up at the San Francisco Zen Center)
  1. Breathe normally
  2. Focus on the tip of the nose where you feel a sensation of air coming in and out
  3. Count breaths (at the beginning), so for example, at the end of the exhale count 1, on the next exhale count 2, etc. all the way up to 10, and then start over
  4. When mind wanders, if you lose count, gently bring your mind back to the breath and start back at 1
  5. In the Soto tradition, it is important not to have any “gaining” ideas (i.e. striving to get better, being overly critical, or trying to stop the thinking)
  6. Keep the mind sharp and fresh (Beginner’s Mind); don’t drift into day dreaming
Applications to Work and our Every Day Lives:
  1. Condition your nervous system to work in 25 min chunks on a single task, followed by a 5 min breaks; track internal and external distractions; every 4 periods take a longer break; combine short tasks into a single 25 min period; if you finish early go into “over-learning” (www.pomodorotechnique.com)
  2. Focus on driving when driving, notice when your mind wanders from the task.
  3. Shit when shitting, eat when eating, clean when cleaning.
For more info check out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) and Mindful Leadership (Maria Gonzalez)

How is Learning to Drum like Innovating on the Job?


LEARNING TO DRUM IS SIMILAR TO INNOVATING ON THE JOB! There are many challenges to overcome, but remain positive, find a supportive environment, practice diligently, be patient, and persevere. Above all be ready to let failure be your guide.

  1. We learn to play on the beat by playing off the beat – failure precedes success (And lots of failure precedes lots of success…hopefully.)
  2. Playfulness is essential to success (Relax and have fun, damn it!)
  3. Frustration comes with the territory (i.e. Grooving with others can be challenging!)
  4. Improvement is step by step (i.e. Beat by beat)
  5. Perseverance furthers (Build them calluses!)
  6. Coaching and feedback are essential (Remember to breathe, relax your shoulders.)
  7. We learn most quickly in a supportive environment (I like your energy, now let’s work on steadiness.)
  8. We need to “let go” (Just as in playing the Saidi rhythm on the dumbek!)

(material adapted from Idea Champions)

Now lets check out some inspirational drumming:

Brazilian Samba Drumming: High Performance Teamwork!

Rio de Janeiro Percussion Ensemble at Carnival

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH PERFORMANCE TEAMS? I believe we can learn much about great teamwork from watching how a Rio de Janeiro Samba drum ensemble rehearses and performs!

On my last trip to Rio, I was fascinated by the percussion groups of the samba schools (Escolas de Samba). The drum sections are called “baterias” and consist of up to three or four hundred drummers, organized into instrumental units. At GRES Vila Isabel, I participated in a rehearsal with perhaps two hundred “ritmistas” all playing their samba drums with ferocity. The Mestre, or lead director, out front raises his arms to give a cue, and immediately all the other 6 sub directors, stationed throughout the mass of drummers, raise their arms. The cue is given, all the directors communicate to their units, and all the drum units perform an incredible execution of an elaborate drum cadence or break.

According to Lafasto and Larson (Teamwork; When Teams Work Best), great teams – whether in sports, business, music, or science – have common characteristics: trust, excellence, alignment, mission focus, and structure.

T – Trust:  Team members trust each other to get the work done and support each other (Everybody comes to rehearsals).

E – Excellence:  The baseline expectation is excellence (You gotta nail your rhythm at 150 beats per minute).

A – Alignment: The team agrees on the strategy for success (We gotta learn these breaks, rehearse every week, decide on the theme song by this date, and choose the costume).

M – Mission:  There is a “mission” focus, not a “me” focus (Don’t try to show off, just do your part and fit in the section).

S – Structure: We have day to day processes to get the job done (Rehearsal starts at 8, get your drum, rehearse, pack away the drum).

These samba groups have the characteristics of high performance teams! How does your team at work measure up?

Inspirational Samba drumming video:

Rio Percussion Group Bloco X