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Tai chi for business, lesson 3

Last weekend I attended a 5-1/2 hour tai chi intensive and walked away with a renewed sense of vigor for taking on writing my book about Tai Chi for Business.

The theme of this lesson was listening.

As I've explained before, tai chi is different from other martial arts. In tae kwon do, for example, one might line up the earth, their feet, their hip and their fist to maximize force and punch a hole through your face. 

Tai chi, on the other hand, is about the absence of force.  If you try to punch me, I'm like water. The idea is that I'm completely straight and completely fluid (think yin and yang), when an opponent attacks me, there's nothing there for them to hit. They wind up off balance and once they are off balance, they are at your mercy. The body mechanics that people practice in tai chi are designed to train us to be completely fluid around a perfectly vertical axis.

Tai chi diagram

Note the little line above the tai chi dude's head and under his foot in his picture. That represents a vertical axis.

Of course, in Chinese philosophy there is a parallel between art and life. We practice one to cultivate the other. Hence my whole notion that you can use tai chi principles to in business: you can use tai chi to be more effective in martial interactions (a.k.a. fights), so it goes that you can use tai chi principles to be more effective in business interactions.

When we practice tai chi, we do a sparring exercise called "push hands." Push hands is the weirdest fighting in the world because the object is to knock your opponent off balance without using any force at all. Zilch. None. Only theirs. Except that's really hard to do because your opponent is also trying to use no force. 

So, how do you win? By listening. Really, really listening to your opponent and their body, understanding what it is they want to do and pivoting around your vertical axis with your fluidity and your highly trained body mechanics. 

From the outside, if you see two people doing push hands, you might see someone go flying off of the other and it looks like one person just pushed the other really hard. But if you're inside the interaction, you realize that's not what's happening at all. The "winner" just listened better and got out of the "loser's" way.

Imagine this. You're leaning heavily against a wall. That wall disappears. You fall violently on your ass. It's kind of like that.

Now, how can this apply to business?

Well, let's take me. I work with people—doesn't matter if I'm talking employees, clients, prospects or partners—they're people. I have a vision of how things should be. I want those people to act in a way that aligns with my vision. But they have their own vision. 

I could try to tae kwon do them. I could coerce them or nag them or berate them or yell at them—use force to bend them to my will.

Or I could tai chi them. I could listen to them to understand where they are coming from. Once I've listened, not only do I understand, but they are now "off balance" and I can help guide them—without any force—toward seeing things from a different for themselves.

Are you truly listening to the people around you?

Adam Kleinberg CEO

Adam is the CEO of Traction, an interactive agency broadly recognized as one of the top small agencies in the US. Kleinberg plays a hands-on role for all agency accounts and keeps his team at the leading edge of emerging digital channels. He is also a regular contributor to Ad Age, Forbes, Mashable, Digiday and iMediaConnection.