I’ve always been interested in things that keep me stuck and have worked toward finding freedom in those stuck places. Communicating in difficult moments is one of the areas I’ve studied and used what I learned to replace the bad habits with more useful ones.
In 1984, I discovered Aikido and found that this martial art and the art of intelligent communication have much in common. I also found that practising Aikido helped me to be a more skilled communicator. As a martial art, Aikido is flowing, dance-like and powerful. As a communication metaphor, it represents a different and more elegant way to exchange ki [life energy].
We are, always and everywhere, giving and receiving life energy in the ways we speak, move and act. When we are centered and aware, we communicate more intentionally. This is just one of the things Aikido teaches.
Aikido also physically embodies critical communication skills, such as active listening, empathy and perspective taking, and offers ways to re-pattern unhelpful communication habits. For example, in everyday life, the Aikido metaphor plays out when you acknowledge someone’s comments and paraphrase what you hear. You’re also practising communication Aikido whenever you listen with curiosity to an opposing view or search for mutual understanding, respect and purpose.
Aikido: The Art of Peace
Morihei Ueshiba, a highly skilled and renowned Japanese swordsman and martial artist, developed Aikido in the early 20th century. The word Aikido is often translated as “the way of blending or harmonising with energy” or more simply “The Art of Peace.” Aikido principles such as blending [stepping out of the line of the attack and moving alongside the attacker] and non-resistant leading [joining and redirecting the incoming energy, or ki]—are used and taught throughout the world as a system to de-escalate conflict and build stability, flexibility and presence. In Aikido, the attack is reframed as power that can be developed and guided. The Aikidoist does not resist, block or harm the opponent. What would normally be understood as an act of violence is seen simply as energy to be utilised.
After many years of practising and teaching Aikido and applying its principles in the workplace, I’ve found that things change dramatically when you reframe an attack as incoming energy that can be guided toward a mutually agreeable outcome. It changes how we communicate, listen, and manage conflict. And I’ve found that certain practices and attitudes from Aikido are particularly useful when communicating in difficult circumstances.
In Aikido, it is often said that the opponent’s attack is a gift of energy. With this shift of mindset, I stop resisting and instead connect with my partner. In communication, this might take the form of asking a direct question: “Can you tell me more about why you think this is the best solution?” or acknowledging a feeling: “ You sound concerned that the direction we’re taking may not be the best one.”
As human beings, we are experts at forming judgements about everything. For example, if during a conversation, you begin to draw conclusions about who’s right and who’s wrong, you will find it difficult to stay open to possibility. Once we judge someone as a problem, that’s all we see in them and we miss their more open, empathetic parts. Becoming non-judgemental is a practice, and the first step is noticing that you’re doing it.
3. Curiosity and inquiry
The antidote to judgement is a mindset of curiosity and inquiry. This mindset will empower you and keep your communication safe and on track. People who are sincerely curious, ask honest and open-ended questions, such as:
How did you feel when that happened?
- What were you hoping for?
- What do you think is the best solution here?
- What would you like me to do differently?
It may be difficult at first to ask questions when you really want to push for your way. But remember that listening is not agreement. Listening gives you needed information and reduces tension and resistance on both sides.
When I’m teaching Aikido on the mat, I see the physical embodiment of curiosity and listening each time the person receiving the attack steps out of the way, slides to the attacker’s side, and faces the same direction as the attacker. In communication, we do this when we ask a question that helps us see what the other person is seeing.
In communication situations, when you encounter resistance to your message, the last thing you probably want to do is appreciate that resistance. Yet, that’s exactly what we do in Aikido when we manage a physical attack by joining and leading it.
Our skill in communication lies in our ability to identify the resistance and help the communicator to express it. For example, “I’m not sure I understand, can you say more?” Without something to push against, the resistance turns into energy we can join and lead toward further understanding and problem solving.
This is verbal Aikido. And you practice it when you:
- Ask the other person more about his or her concerns.
- Name the resistance, as in, “Are you frustrated by what just happened?”
- Be quiet and let the other person fill the silence.
- Don’t take it personally.
The Aikido of Communication also includes educating others about where you stand. Through reframing, non-judgement, curiosity and appreciation, you have reduced resistance and created an opening for your ideas to be heard.
As you create the opening to advocate for your point of view, the following steps will help.
- Educate. When it’s time to share your point of view, don’t assume the other person can see it. Teach him what things look like from your point of view.
- Communicate your hopes and goals. For example, “When you said you would have the spreadsheet ready by Tuesday, I took you at your word. My hope is that we all recognise the importance of deadlines on a project that’s as time sensitive as this one. Can you tell me what happened and what we can do to remedy the situation?”
- Remain curious. Don’t forget that everything you experience is filtered through your perception. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand.”
- Centre yourself and extend positive energy. In Aikido, we remain centred and focussed on a mutually beneficial outcome. In life and business, you do the same when your language and manner are poised and flexible, and you make your adversary a partner by honouring her viewpoint and positive intent.
Morihei Ueshiba said to “always practise the Art of Peace in a vibrant and joyful manner.” Aikidoists try to remember this as we throw each other around the mat, smiling and having fun while we practise to perfect our technique. Practising Aikido concepts as we talk, listen and acknowledge each other will allow us to become more aware and mindful, and more skilful in our communication.
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