I was having lunch with some friends outside at a beach club recently when one of them noticed a bunch of red ants in the sand near our feet. Our natural instinct was typical – step on them or move to another table. Neither seemed like a great option, but my friend Dan had a better idea. “Give me a piece of that bread,” he said. He broke some bread into a few small pieces and threw the bread a few feet away. Sure enough, the ants started making their way to the bread. Problem solved. The ants were happy, and so were we. We didn’t have to move. Instead, we moved the ants.
There is a similar concept in martial arts which focuses on the redirection of energy. Tai Chi works in this way. It is a soft style with circular movements, but the focus is guiding your opponent’s energy in another direction. Most styles are hard, emphasizing punching, kicking, and blocking. But the benefits of redirection are many. They conserve your energy, they cause the enemy to expend theirs in the wrong direction, and they often leave the opponent off balance. This is what Dan did with the ants, guiding their energy in another direction without wasting ours.
I see this all the time in business and litigation. Just the other day, I spoke with my colleague about opposing a discovery request. The plaintiff was seeking documents from our client, and our client wanted to fight mostly because the plaintiff had no “right” to them. So, we discussed the approach and developed some decent arguments. But we pointed out to the client the downside of this approach.
First, this fight would cost money – meet and confer, filing a motion, going to court, etc. Second, the mere act of opposing the production could suggest to the plaintiff, and perhaps the court, that we had something to hide. Third, we had a real risk of loss. If we went to court and lost, then the client would have spent the money, shown to the court an air of evasiveness, and still be forced to produce the documents. Instead of trying to step on the ants, why not toss them some food? We should just produce the documents. After all, we had nothing to hide. We could conserve our resources and let the plaintiff spend (or waste) theirs reviewing documents that will show nothing. The client agreed.
The next time I encounter ants – literally or figuratively – I will resist the impulse to step on them and instead toss them some food. After all, I know that redirecting the energy of my adversary may end up serving us both. Are you wasting your energy stepping on ants?