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Verbal Aikido Takes the Fight Out of Confrontations

Two men practicing karate on a red floor.

"HR is the pits!" the manager says.

"Oh, really," you—the HR professional—reply. "I'm curious. Tell me more."

The manager's statement was an attack. You understandably could have gone into flight, freeze or fight mode:

  • Flight: "Excuse me, I have to run to the bathroom!"
  • Freeze: "Uh, uh, uh ..."
  • Fight: "So I'm the pits?! Well, you're the zits on the pits!"

Instead, you practiced "verbal aikido." The goal is to engage your attacker, use his energy while preserving yours, stay centered and keep your balance as he loses his.

Developed by Morihei Ueshiba, the Japanese martial art aikido is often described as a "way of harmonizing energy" (or "harmonizing life force"). It differs from other martial arts that train you to block an attack and respond with a counterstrike. Instead, in aikido you blend into and flow with the attacker's energy, channeling it and your attacker to a place where no one gets hurt.

Verbal aikido is not a set of techniques as much as a paradigm to keep you centered when challenged or provoked, and to help maximize your opportunity to find common ground and establish harmony. As sensei Suzane Van Amburgh, chief instructor of Aikido Multnomah Aikikai, put it, "Aikido practice trains the practitioner to maintain a calm, centered presence when facing challenging people and stressful situations."

In my former career as an employment law attorney, I had many opportunities to practice verbal aikido. Here's an encounter I believe many HR professionals can relate to.

My client was a construction company. An equipment operator, who was black, filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He continued to work at the company while his claim was pending.

The construction company owner was outraged by this employee's "disloyalty." He pressed the HR director to fire the employee. Understandably, she declined. "Get our attorney here!" commanded the owner, "Bob." When I arrived, the conference room was filled with senior executives, the HR director and Bob. I could smell the tension.

Bob didn't invite me to have a seat. Instead, he got up, walked over to me, put a finger a couple of inches in front of my face and said, "Jatson!" (That's how he pronounced my name.) Gesturing toward a window overlooking the construction yard, he said, "I want you to tell me I can walk out to that yard right now and fire that rotten S.O.B.!"

I took a couple of deep breaths and said, "Sure, Bob. You can walk out there right now and fire him." I paused and then said, "And if you do, I will thank you. And my wife will thank you. And my kids, getting close to their college years, will thank you."

The room remained silent as Bob gave me the best "you've got to be kidding me" look I've ever seen. Without a word, he walked back to the table and sat down. The meeting was over.

The employee wasn't fired. A few months later at an EEOC mediation conference, the HR director and I negotiated the employee's resignation and release of claims in exchange for a severance package. Case closed.

Aikido—it can be HR's best friend.

Practice Makes Perfect

Like any martial art, aikido requires practice. To get a physical sense of it, I took lessons with Van Amburgh. At our first session, she said, "Attack me."

I'm a shade under 6 feet 2 inches tall and weigh 200 pounds—much larger than she. I hesitated. She insisted I attack her. So I did.

All of a sudden, she was no longer in front me. What's more, I found myself going in a direction I hadn't planned on, moving unsteadily like my newly walking 1-year-old granddaughter. Van Amburgh was directing my movement with two fingers pressed against my neck—and not even pressing hard!

HR professionals, I have three recommendations:

  1. Access materials on aikido, including books, articles and videos. There's plenty out there. Here's my friend sensei Aki Fleshler, sixth-degree black belt, in action. Van Amburgh recommends reading material from Judy Ringer, founder of Portsmouth Aikido, and the book The Magic of Conflict (Touchstone, 1998) by Thomas Crum.
  2. Take a few aikido lessons or classes. Even if you don't want to acquire belts, getting a physical sense of aikido will help develop your verbal aikido skills.
  3. Organize HR "aikido parties." Get together with your HR colleagues and role-play. Take turns being the irate executive, manager or employee confronting the HR professional. You'll pick up some great tips—and have a lot of fun.

Here's my last verbal aikido illustration:

Let's say this column doesn't resonate with you. You call me up and say, "Jathan, your verbal aikido idea is the No. 1 stupidest thing I've ever heard in my entire life!" You can expect this response: "Oh, really. Wow. What's No. 2?"


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