Be Like Water: 3 Martial Arts Lessons For Negotiation

Be Like Water

Are you trying hard to improve your negotiation skills? These 3 lessons from martial arts may help you in your professional life.

You may wonder what martial arts and negotiation have in common. As a lifetime practicing martial artist, I constantly use lessons from various martial arts to help me in my professional life. One of the most common themes running through all martial arts is the silencing of the “self.” Martial artists meditate to quiet themselves and become more attuned to the processes of the self and the world around them.

Negotiators must also be mindful, especially if they wish to be successful. When you’re doing all the talking and pushing, you’re the rock or the stone. Whereas when you’re water, you take whatever shape you need to become. This puts you automatically in control, even if that requires patience and time. You can be prepared for anything without being blocked by your thoughts and senses.

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If you’re tense or distracted by the planning and anticipation of your next move toward your opponent, you’re much more likely to be hit. Similarly, if your thoughts and senses block you in negotiation, you’re more likely to give away your position, strategy, and point of weakness.

But if you come prepared to listen with complete openness, you begin to notice things. You find openings in arguments, unravel the essential backstories behind the arguments and realize where the actual questions lie.

Negotiation is investigative; it’s an art for the curious. Those who approach it with an open and serene mind are less likely to expose their weak points for attack. This is what it means to become the water and not the stone.

Here are some martial arts techniques to apply to negotiations:

1. Relax without showing strength or weakness

Great competitors will not show their strength because it also may display a weakness. Revealing your strength can expose your vulnerability. To be like water, relax.

I recall an instance where I did exactly this. I was attending a play in New York City’s Times Square with my business partner at the time, accompanied by his girlfriend and my wife. After the fantastic show, the audience poured through the exit.

I was about 10 feet away from my wife and business partner’s girlfriend when I observed a man studying them. He seemed to be looking at their purses. I could sense he was about to make a move, so I immediately closed the gap and stood between him and the women.

I looked him in the eye and smiled and put out my hand to shake his hand, and I said, “Hey, how are you doing?” He put out his hand and shook mine, and I just said, “There’s nothing for you here.” He shook my hand for a little longer than you’d expect and then smiled and walked away.

This is a perfect example of the power of a be-like-water strategy. I wasn’t threatening. I wasn’t afraid. I could have approached the matter differently and been combative and accusatory, but that would have caused far more trouble than it was worth. I knew in that instance to be like the water — calm, collected. I listened and observed my surroundings and obstacles, ultimately knowing that through the art of listening and silencing myself that I could leave the situation unscathed yet wiser.

“In the struggle between the stone and water, in time, the water wins.” ̶ Japanese Proverb

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2. Find openings

In martial arts, the search for that opening in your opponent is a patient one that eventually yields results.

Negotiation is a human process and thus rich in human interaction, showing your human side, establishing that you care, and demonstrating empathy make the people you interact with more comfortable. How can you do this? By listening and asking questions.

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Cash Nickerson

Professor…Attorney…Entrepreneur…Philanthropist…Author Cash Nickerson, JD, MBA is an innovative and transformative leader. He combines business skills and acumen with martial arts wisdom. The result is a powerful high-performance formula for success in an ever-changing enterprise landscape.View Author posts