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Martial Arts and Conflict Resolution
Joel Lee and James Shanahan
Editors’ Note: Is there a relationship between skill in negotiation and skill in martial arts? Counterintuitive as this may be, the authors answer—yes there is. Starting from opposite sides of the planet and very different occupations (law teaching in Singapore, and police work in New York City), the authors have two things in common: they teach negotiation, and they teach martial arts. Here, they compare and contrast the worlds in which they must operate, and show how martial arts training has benefited both of them—and their negotiation students.
At first blush, readers may be forgiven for thinking that the title of this chapter is an oxymoron. After all, a diet of Hollywood action and Chinese Kung Fu movies certainly gives one the impression that martial arts is all about “kicking ass” and other violent activities. On the other hand, conflict resolution conjures up images of mediators and other types of peacemakers helping others resolve their differences while New Age music plays and bells chime in the background.
As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction. In this chapter, the authors will draw upon their extensive experience in the martial arts, and show how there are uncanny parallels between martial arts and conflict resolution. The authors believe that these parallels can provide learnings and insights that will inform the learning, training and practice of conflict resolution. Admittedly, this is a relatively undeveloped area of inquiry as yet—but our assessment is not unprecedented. In fact, for most of its 40-year history, the Hostage Negotiation Team of the New York Police Department has looked at training and experience in the martial arts as one indicator of potential in a new candidate for appointment to the team. [NDR: Volpe et al., The Unknown]
These learnings and insights can be categorized into:
■ Definition and Philosophy
■ Maintaining Balance
■ Training and Development
■ Redirection and Utilization
Martial Arts: Definition and Philosophy
As with many origin myths lost in the mists of history, there is some ambiguity as to the origin of the martial arts. There is a saying which goes “All martial arts originate from Shaolin”. This is a reference to the Shaolin Temple in China, known not just for being the seat of Buddhism but also for its warrior monks. There is also a view that the monks at the Shaolin Temple were taught both Buddhism and the martial arts by Bodhidharma1, who traveled from India to China to spread the teachings of Buddha. Bodhidharma saw that the monks were weak from meditating full-time, and taught them physical movements to strengthen their bodies. These physical movements would evolve to be kung fu or martial arts. Whichever of these two versions (or some other) of the origin myth one accepts, there is no dispute that there is a significant Chinese input and influence into the field of martial arts.
But what specifically is Kung Fu or Martial Arts? Kung Fu, or more accurately (gong  fu )2 literally means “skill attained through work”. So while the term (gongfu) is commonly associated with martial arts, one could have (gongfu) in painting, or tea making, or building a house—or resolving conflicts. In this sense, everyone who is an expert in anything is a (gongfu) master. Hence, one who is an excellent practitioner of conflict resolution is also a master of (gongfu), in its original sense.
The Chinese term for martial arts is (wu  shu ). This is literal. (wushu) literally means martial arts. What is of more interest is the etymology of the word (wu) or martial. Chinese words are ideographic. This means that different ideograms can be combined to make other words. The word (wu) is made up of two ideograms, (ge ) and (zhi ). The character (ge) means spear. The character (zhi) means, in some contexts, “to stop”. Therefore, one way to interpret....
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