Tag Archives: conflict

The Probability of Blows

Martial artists know techniques for injuring quickly and with minimal effort.  That fact floats into my head whenever members of an increasingly inconsiderate public seem to enjoy acting uncivilized – but not for the reason one would think.

An instance of uncivilized behavior has stayed with me for a few days now.  A man was flying through the parking garage at the gym, ignoring stop signs.  I had to hit the brakes to keep him from plowing into the passenger side of my car – which, at the time, was occupied by my son.  I looked at the driver with a what-is-the-matter-with-you expression and motioned for him to continue on.  He stared at me a second, then laughed before peeling away.

“I wanna rip his face…” my son said angrily.  “Never mind,” he quickly added with a heavy sigh.  “But did you see that?? He was laughing!”

I told him I saw it but thought it best not to think about it.  Thinking about it would make me want to go chase the guy out of the garage.

A chase would be stupid and juvenile, of course.  A chase would automatically escalate the confrontation.  And once words were exchanged – particularly with a son who already wanted to “rip his face” – the probability of blows would be disturbingly high.

I’ve met many who, upon learning that I practice and teach kung fu, raise their eyebrows with what looks like disapproval, though usually cloaked in politeness.  One acquaintance actually made comments about promoting violence.  But the truth is precisely the opposite.  Most people don’t know that an evaluation of kung fu skills includes assessing one’s level of control.

Some of the most anti-confrontational people I’ve ever known wear a black belt or sash during their off hours.  The power to injure quickly and with minimal effort is sobering.  It frequently creates people who would rather just say “never mind.”

The Honest Answer

It feels like I’ve been a student of communication forever.  The thing I tend to catch pretty easily – probably because it’s a pet peeve as much as it can be a professional liability – is when an answer to a question I’ve asked is nonresponsive.  Politicians are great at that: telling an interviewer whatever sound bites they want repeated, rather than actually answering the question that was asked.  People who aren’t big fans of direct communication or who simply have their own reasons for avoiding the truth are good at it, too.

I thought of Sifu as good at being nonresponsive, after our communication catastrophe earlier in the year, which effectively ended with a demand for my silence.  But after six months of squelching my natural impulse to simply ask for the information I want, an overflowing class of first-timers on Saturday compelled me to offer to teach again at the guan and ask Sifu if he’d allow it.  If ever there were a time to call in the teaching cavalry, it would have been with Saturday’s motley crew; so I was surprised and upset not to have been tapped.

When I first read his emailed response, all I could see was this: “I appreciate the offer to help.  But it’s not necessary at this time.”  You didn’t answer my question! I thought.  But I received the email right before having to give my attention to a group of friends for a couple of hours.  The time spent not thinking about the nonresponsive nature of his answer was a godsend.  For when I reread the exchange later in the evening, I saw more than I had upon initial reading.

He’d also told me that he understood I was willing to help and would keep me in mind in the future.  I was still a possible substitute somewhere down the line.  I just didn’t know when.  He might not know either.

So what’s the big deal, one may ask?  The episode made me wonder if I need to reconsider what constitutes nonresponsive.  Perhaps questions of mine that I think have a definitive black or white answer actually don’t.  Maybe instead of yes or no, the honest answer is I don’t know.  Maybe the question itself isn’t as clear as I think it should be to the reader or listener.  Maybe, just maybe, I misread or misinterpret the answer simply because it doesn’t contain what I want it to.

Sifu may have just been letting me down easy.  I have no way to know.  But the questions his answer made me ask myself were a worthwhile lesson for this student of communication.

Internal Politics

I’m struggling today, and it’s uncomfortable.  I don’t like being uncomfortable and tend to immediately try to alleviate or eliminate the feeling.  But I’m stuck on how to accomplish that – without quitting my job.

The trip took a lot out of me.  It wasn’t just the length of the days or the fight to stay on East coast time. The behavior of my colleague on Friday morning is weighing heavily on mind and spirit, and I’m finding it difficult to smile my way through it.  I’m beyond the incident itself, feeling acutely stifled instead by the culture of a company that will look the other way on that kind of behavior for a myriad of reasons – but only for certain members of the staff.

I’m so tired of the internal politics of the corporate world!   More than that, I’m tired of frequently feeling like human interaction in general requires some sort of politics, as in “the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing” behavior, policy, or opinion.  Clearly, I’ve been hanging around the movers, shakers and manipulators for far too many years.  Each day I spend away from the office not working makes it harder to come back to the bullshit.  (I just can’t parse words on that one.)

Speaking of days away, it felt so good to be home yesterday.  And by home, I mean in an exercise space big enough to accommodate me swinging a staff around like a whip just as much as I mean my house.  Ironically, even at the gym I had to deal with internal politics.

A trainer who often uses the yoga room to warm up her clients was annoyed because I was already in the space. She came into the room accompanied, exited and came back in alone to tell me that I needed to understand that I had to share the space with others.  I hadn’t said anything to her or her client but, “Hi.”  I have no problem with sharing… but management does.

“I was actually told I can only train in a room or space when I’m alone,” I answered pleasantly, completely empathizing with her frustration, having felt it myself when wanting to practice on a crowded gym day.  She was brought up short and stared at me for a second.  “Because what I’m doing involves a weapon,” I added.

The ah-ha light bulb went off in her head, and I went on to explain that if she has no other place to be with a client, I will leave the yoga room, just as I leave the squash courts when folks actually come to play squash.  That did it.  It was the first time in half a dozen times of making eye contact with the woman that she smiled at me.

Political battle averted.  If only they all could be that easy.


Without Hesitation

I haven’t been this happy without nerves about something kung fu related since I showed up for my first class after my black sash test to learn the opening moves of Lian Huan Tui.  Five days later, I was spinning a staff for the first time, and I rode cloud nine for the next thirteen months.  Today is the first day of the post-crash era, because I signed up at a great gym last night – one where the membership representative looked at me like I was silly for asking if membership allowed me to practice kung fu on the premises, with weapons.

“We have a belly dancing class here, and she uses knives.  As long as there’s no one else in the room, you’re more than welcome to use any one of five different spaces to practice with weapons.  How long have you been doing kung fu?”

Five different spaces where I can practice?  Five!  My mind instantly went to my happy place, and I smiled like a preschooler at Disney World for the first time.  I was so lost in glee and relief, it took a moment of her looking at me in silence for me to remember that she’d asked a question at the end of the sentence.

I told her how long I’d been at it, then asked a question of my own: “Do you offer any kind of martial arts classes here?”  They don’t.  “Would you like to?”

And just like that I was suddenly armed with the contact information for the woman who would audition me to teach at the new gym I hadn’t even practiced in yet.  Even better, the membership rep can’t wait to run interference first and tell her all about me.

I wasn’t just thrilled when I walked out of that gym last night; I was proud.  I’d done what I do best – the very thing that started the trouble with Sifu: I got tired of hanging out with feelings that were unproductive and potentially destructive, and I did the next seemingly logical thing to get rid of them.  Perhaps that’s the spoiled American in me, (compared to the tradition-oriented American-born Chinese), the one who wants the instant gratification of an immediate solution to a problem.  If so, fine.  I’ll own that, without hesitation.  Because here’s what I know: last Saturday morning, I was off to kung fu with my tail between my legs, taking responsibility for my breach of tradition while burying my hurt and ignoring the personal affront.  This morning, Sifu can treat me however he chooses, and I can just go to the gym.

Square One

“And I’m going to need some space outside of classes.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, with images of accosting him on the street popping into my head.  “I don’t understand.”

He smiled broadly and just stared at me a moment before continuing. I thought that if a total stranger to both of us had been passing us at that moment, they might have thought my boyfriend was breaking up with me or something.  It struck me as that strange a thing to say.

“Don’t email me anymore.  I don’t want any more explanations or apologies,” he clarified, still smiling.

At that point, I stifled a chuckle, understanding the richness of the irony.  The previous moment’s exchange was almost the quintessential example of our difficulties with each other: Sifu’s tendency to hint at what he wants me to do, expecting me to intuit his meaning, and my tendency to ask for explicit clarification, instead of risking misinterpretation of what had already been said.

We had each done what we do, engaged in one of the acts that most baffles the other.  Only this time, he didn’t make a second cryptic statement to follow the first or simply leave my question completely unaddressed.  He directly told me what he didn’t want me to do, rather than leave me to make a future error unaware.  It felt like a gift – an expensive and well-wrapped one at that.  And that wasn’t even the best part of the conversation.

The prohibition against cyberspace communication was a result of my having emailed him Friday afternoon to extend a second apology.  I wanted him to know that I’d had the cultural error of my ways spelled out to me.  But he opened today’s conversation by pulling me aside at the conclusion of two and half hours of training and announcing: “I didn’t actually read your email yesterday; I started to but decided to stop.  I want to just start things over between you and me.  As of right now, we just begin again from here.”

“I’d love that,” I answered, wondering if some kind of epiphany had occurred since he’d dressed me down – and without him even reading the apology I’d offered with a humble mea culpa.

Did he come to see my point of view?  Did he notice the dirt on his own side of the street?  Did the reason for the overture matter at all?

It certainly could if I let it.  But what good could possibly come from that?

I’m Still Here

When I walked in the door last night, I bowed to the room, took off my coat and shoes, slung my sword over my shoulder and headed for the basement… right behind the beginner class just back from break that I should have been teaching.  Sifu was covering for the missing green sash instructor, and I bowed to him as I passed.  He returned it with a smile.  It was a smile I’d seen before and precisely the kind I would have expected to get from him upon telling him of my tournament win.  It was a smile of genuine happiness mixed with a hint of pride.

I was there, head held high, despite the devastating dressing down on Tuesday.  I was there at a time that required I face the teacher who’d replaced me, knowing they’d been told of my removal.  And Sifu appeared to be happy about that, though I certainly didn’t do it for him.

Once downstairs, it did my heart good to see one of my favorite students not only light up when he saw me but lightly clap his hands and hop up and down a couple of times.  I winked and smiled at him without saying a word and took a spot in the corner to stretch and warm up.

I noticed Sifu come downstairs while I was practicing front and back sweeps as far out of the way of the class as I could manage.  His presence in the basement meant he’d left a bunch of sparring pre-teens to their own devices.  I’d never seen him do that before.  It made me wonder if he’d come down just to make sure I wasn’t lending my two cents to the class.  I know that’s paranoid, but at this point, looking over my shoulder seems appropriate.

I can’t wrap my brain around all this, try as I might.  The more hours that pass, the more I find myself feeling sorrier for him than myself.  If I hadn’t angered him with my comment about his reaction (or lack thereof) to my win,  I might never have known that he’s considered it disrespectful every time I’ve taken whatever empty space was available to practice staff while another class was going.  Never mind that the sanshou instructor has explicitly told me I’m welcome to practice in the empty space during his class; never mind that Sifu himself has told his tai chi students to move down and give me room when I’ve come looking for it.  Sifu’s explanation is that it was easier to just make room for me then to call me out in front of a class and embarrass me with an order to move.  It was easier to just avoid conflict.

What conflict? I didn’t even know we had one!  When I have a conflict, I say something so it can be resolved as quickly as possible – which is exactly what got me into this mess.  Call me crazy, but I don’t like to be uncomfortable if I think I can do something about it.  I don’t understand preferring to stew.  It seems like such a waste of potentially precious moments in a life that’s doesn’t last forever.  And I refuse to be robbed willingly.  After all, I’m a black sash in kung fu!