Persuading by being open

May 31, 2009 Persuading by being open


Today, I was minding my own business waiting for a traffic light to turn green when there was a light tap on my driver’s side window. There was a time when I would have tensed up in defensiveness with my armor under the same circumstances, before knowing who was there, lest it be someone with a knife or otherwise. Having increased the time I spend on t’ai chi, I thought nothing suspicious of the tap, and opened my window after seeing what appeared to be the driver of the tourbus to my left, asking the meaning of my license plate’s acronym, NMMHRGK. I replied: "It is a Japanese Buddhist prayer for peace," which seemed to tickle the gentleman at minimum. (The acronym represents the odaimoku of Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo, which is the essence of the Lotus Sutra; I first learned it from my friend and teacher Jun Yasuda, who is peace personified; chanting it daily helps me approach that level of internal peace.)

It is hard to persuade judges, jurors and other people to trust me any more than I trust them. What good does it serve for tension to be visible in me by the people I am trying to persuade, especially if they think they are the ones making me feel tense? Tension has no place in t’ai chi, and makes it harder to sense and listen to the situation at hand.

Similarly, this past week, I stayed calm while dealing with a prosecutor who was more than happy to have me listen to his every word as he made a guilty plea offer — which my client rejected, followed by the wise decision of going to trial — which I was obligated by basic ethics rules to convey to my client, even though he reacted sharply dismissively when I came back soon thereafter with a counteroffer. Had I done otherwise, I would have been tense, which does not serve the process of battle and persuasion, and does not help one sense, listen to, and follow all essential battle-related events.

There was a time when I thought that acting calmly in the face of an insulting opponent might sometimes make me look weak to my opponent and colleagues. Sure, I call opponents on this from time to time, but the difference now is that I do it calmly, and with an effort not to lose the ability to hear my opponent between the lines as well as in the lines of communication.

In t’ai chi, we are taught not to tense up when under attack, just as we do not help ourselves to tense up when a car seems about to hit us, when we are trying to avert or minimize harm. All that does is to make it easier for us to be pushed by our opponents. When we soften ourselves up — like water or wind — to our opponents to the point that they cannot find anything to push against, the opponent’s attack is at the very least neutralized, and sometimes is thrown off balance to my client’s benefit. Jon Katz.

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