Verbal aikido: how to defend yourself (gently) at work

Dec 01, 2020

5 mins

Verbal aikido: how to defend yourself (gently) at work
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

The debates that took place during the American presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Joe Biden turned out to be quite aggressive with a low blow here, a roundhouse kick there, and an uppercut to follow. Although some people really do believe that attack is the best form of defense, verbal aikido supporters do not agree. On the contrary, its followers see their discipline as a peaceful and effective way to manage verbal attacks and negativity. This approach might be just what you need now that everyone seems to be at each other’s throats thanks to the constant video conferences, new telework policies and discussions between colleagues over whether to wear a mask. This new method could really help you to manage your most aggressive colleagues at work or remotely.

Verbal aikido: switch from conflict to dialogue

Inspired by the martial art of the same name, verbal aikido focuses on getting you out of a tense situation safely. Thus, the two practitioners are not “adversaries” but “partners”. Therefore, there are no winners or losers. Its sole purpose is to: “Direct verbal aggression towards a positive and balanced outcome.” So, it doesn’t necessarily resolve a disagreement, but at least things will go from fraught to calm, and then you will be able to have a real conversation again. It is a peaceable approach to dealing with aggression and negativity from others, in both your private and your work life.

So, how do you spot a verbal attack in the first place? It is not always easy as they tend to leave less of a trace than an armlock or a slap. If anything, they can take on a number of forms: criticism, reproach, judgment, objection, complaint.“It’s very subjective and can stem from something that is spoken or unspoken. But it always leads to tension, a loss of feeling centered for those subjected to it,” said Luke Archer, a communication coach, writer, and specialist in this technique.

So, run away or fight back?

“Verbal aikido is generally picked up because of a desire to protect yourself, by putting what someone might say into perspective, so you don’t get hurt,” said Archer. In their “verbal dojos”––or practice sessions––its advocates train and develop their emotional reflexes to be able to deal with more or less ordinary situations: a boss who tells you off for being late, a colleague [criticizing your work, or even your mother-in-law moaning about the way you have cooked the Sunday roast.

Everyone has their boundaries, subjects that are “off limits” and, above all, their own way of reacting when they feel under attack. Are you the kind of person who strikes back, runs away, tries to justify their actions, or tries to divert attention away from themselves?

A verbal attack can trigger all sorts of emotions in the person subjected to it and can make them respond inappropriately. The regrets come later: “I wish I had said that! That would have shut him up!” Or perhaps they realize that they completely overreacted to the situation.

So, verbal aikido teaches you how to stay calm, thus enabling you to handle the situation more effectively. “It’s a dance, with three steps,” said Archer.

  • First of all, you have to learn how to accept an attack with an “inner smile”. This smile is a kind of “untouchable self-confidence”, which is intrinsically linked to self-knowledge and self-assurance. It helps you to avoid any conflict with the person who is trying to stir things up.

  • Next, you steer the attack to the point of destabilization. This step involves putting yourself in your attacker’s shoes and trying to see their point of view. You should try to look at things objectively from their perspective, instead of taking it head-on.

  • Only then can you try to restore balance to the discussion. Eventually, you can start to have a more constructive exchange and then suggest a more collective approach. Maybe you can even make the other person listen to reason, find an acceptable compromise or ultimately find a solution to the initial problem.

These steps are particularly effective when you are confronted with an immediate issue, but they can also be used to anticipate future situations. They can allow you to prepare for a number of professional situations such as a job interview where you know your CV is going to be picked apart because of a gap in your experience, a meeting that is going to be problematic because it is with one of your most obtuse colleagues or your annual review with a manager who is not very easy-going.

Now, it’s time to practice: here are some classic verbal aikido moves

Verbal aikido offers a number of specific moves to deal with an attack. Although every situation is different, and it isn’t a “miracle cure”, here are a few standard business instances where they could be of benefit:

  • Is your colleague complaining about a new measure that your boss has put in place? Let them release all that negative energy. “When people grumble about things, we often want them to just stop. We resist. Yet, we should be getting them to continue, placing ourselves in a neutral listening position, offering them the chance to be understood,” said Archer. This means that, instead of telling your colleague, “It’s not that bad!”, you should get them to say their piece. Only after that can you get to the heart of the problem and, consequently, be in a position to offer a solution to it.

  • Does your manager constantly criticize your work? Talk to them about it, so you can both find a new approach. Imagine they said to you: “These slides are really incoherent.” Rather than replying with the fact that their slides look like they were done on Microsoft Word 98, take a minute (and smile that famous inner smile). Then confirm his opinion modestly by saying something like, “I have produced better presentations in the past.” The idea is to destabilize, rather than discuss it or justify yourself. Next you should offer to rework it by asking, “How can it be improved?” This way, everyone gets to walk away from the exchange feeling respected and with their heads held high.

  • Does a colleague have a grudge against you that is not warranted? Look for a solution without necessarily giving in. You can take the other person’s opinion on board completely or just partially, while still hanging on to your own point of view. “I understand that my email may have upset you. However, I had to say something, otherwise, there could have been a misunderstanding about this project. How can I step in without offending you next time?”

  • Your boss goes too far and tears into you for no real reason. Confront him. Although it is peaceable, verbal aikido does not suggest that you accept aggression or turn the other cheek, but that you render your opponent harmless. Sometimes, when things go too far, the person under attack needs to say that the other person’s words are unacceptable and offensive: “I might have made a mistake, but that does not give you the right to treat me this way. So, I am going to wait for you to calm down and apologize.”

Regardless of whether you are under lockdown and back on Zoom or in your office, the snide comments, false assumptions, and open criticism are not just going to disappear. According to Archer, people have three predominant feelings in these kinds of situations: anger, fear, and sadness. All these elements can lead to conflict but they could also be used as an opportunity to show more empathy, to talk about people’s perceptions and how to move forward together. And this is what verbal aikido is all about. So, if you have been pulling your hair out while sitting behind your computer screen because you are spending most of your time trying to ignore a colleague’s inappropriate comments, you now have a new weapon up your sleeve so you can manage them with the same amount of wisdom and composure as Yoda, the Jedi master in Star Wars. Above all, try to remember the words of Issac Asimov, a professor in biochemistry and a science-fiction writer, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Translated by Mildred Dauvin

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