Lessons from the world of Aikido
October 28, 2010
At some point in a future presentation you may encounter tough questions or even a hostile audience member who may be more interested in making you look foolish or derail you during your talk than getting at the truth. It happens. Even if an audience member does choose to assume the role of "opponent," your irritation or any display of anger will surely not do you or the rest of your audience (98% of whom may support your views) any good at all. The modern Japanese martial art of Aikido (合気道) has many lessons for us about dealing effectively with everyday challenging situations, including difficult questions and difficult people. Aikido means "the way of spiritual harmony" and was established in the 1920s by Morihei Ueshiba. Aikido is practiced on the dojo but it also offers us everyday life applications of harmony and peace that extend far beyond the mat. Aikido is an effective response to conflict as well as an approach to living and way of life which seeks to promote harmonious solutions.
Nonresistance, harmony, & assertiveness
Ueshiba-sensei, also called O-sensei (the great teacher), was not a large man but his skills as a martial artists are said to be unparalleled. And as pointed out in John Steven's Budo Secrets, Ueshiba was also a philosopher and a very spiritual man who spent much time talking with his students about the deeper meanings reflected in Aikido. “The universe is always teaching us Aikido, though we fail to perceive it,” Ueshiba said. O-sensei thought that the universe is our greatest teacher and our greatest friend. Aikido is non-violent and stresses the concept of blending rather than opposing the force of another person or a situation. “The way of a Warrior is not to kill and destroy but to foster life, to continually create.” In Aikido one does not attack. “If you want to strike first to gain advantage over someone, this is proof your training is insufficient,” said O-sensei. Yet, one does not run or cower from attack either. Aikido is not passive. Rather, the Aikidoka lets the other attack and uses the attacker’s aggression or energy against him. In this way one can defeat an opponent through non-resistance by leveraging the other’s force rather than one using his own brute strength to resist.
Here are a seven practical lessons from the spirit of Aikido which we can apply to communication in general and dealing with an aggressive audience member in particular.
(1) Be here now. In Aikido, Harmony, and the Business of Living (Zanshin Press), Richard Moon calls the practice of being fully present and fully aware “Feel Where You Are.” If you are to truly listen, engage, and empathize with someone challenging you then you yourself must be completely aware of your situation and aware of their situation and all the subtle signals. One who is fully in the present cannot be caught off guard. “Feeling where you are,” says Moon, “refines awareness into attention.” Everyone in your audience deserves your full attention. There is energy in your presence, that is, when you are fully present.
(2) Size matters not. Aikido is not about brute strength. A well-trained Aikidoka can neutralize a much larger opponent, not by opposing his force, but by blending with the opponent’s energy and guiding it, controlling it. You need not feel intimidated by the fact that others may prejudge you or assume you are in a weaker position. Perhaps you are new or young or an outsider, but these things do not matter. What matters is that you are prepared, ready, and fully listening—with your ears, and also with your eyes, and your heart.
(3) Strive for harmony. Ki (気) can be translated as "life force" or "vital force" or more commonly as “spirit” or "energy." It is the living energy that flows through all things. Aikido teaches the student how to be in harmony with the spirit/energy of the universe and how to use this energy of life rather than resist it. In Aikido, force and energy is not about strength of the body, which is limited, but about the power of ki, which is limitless. "We can't control ki but we can create the ideal situation within ourselves for ki to work," says the late Aikido master Kensho Furuya. Proper mindfulness, stillness, presence, as well as relaxation of movement can help create the ideal situation for which this energy can flow.
(4) Do not become defensive. If an audience member is aggressive or even hostile toward you, do not react by being hostile back. This kind of resistance never works. When you allow stress in the form of feelings related to defensiveness such as irritation, fear, impatience, and anger your thinking becomes cloudy and your actions — including speaking — may become impulsive and foolish. Remember that we are not concerned with winning or losing, only with “the true nature of things.” During Q&A or discussion we are interested in truth just as our challenging questioner may be. If we are presenting truly naked with honesty, integrity, and good intention, we need not fear exposure since we have nothing to hide. We aim not to dominate people and situations, but are thinking more in terms of collaboration. By remaining calm we can give measured responses instead of emotional reactions. “Impulsiveness and stubbornness give way to patience and understanding,” says Richard Moon, when we remain calm, focused, and centered.
(5) Remain balanced. Proper breathing is one crucial way to create the ideal situation for our ki to flow. Practice proper breathing at all times, but especially if your emotions try to kick in once you sense an attack. Become aware of your center. Kikai tanden is your body’s center located in your belly about three finger widths below your navel. This center is your inner compass. You must maintain good posture in which you are well balanced physically and mentally. When dealing with a tough question one should not be leaning to the side or have more weight on one foot than another. This imbalance can make you feel (and look) weaker on some level, though you may not be conscious of it. When you breathe, imagine that your breath is centered in the kikai tanden. Breathing from this center is a common technique in many forms of meditation.
(6) Do not regard others as the enemy. Those who may challenge us are not the enemy. The only real enemy is inside us. O-sensei said "I know not how to defeat others. I only know how to win over myself." Obviously O-sensei thwarted all attacks, but this preparedness was made possible through constant training and knowledge that the real enemies are fear, self-doubt, anger, confusion, and jealousy and other emotions inside us that can disturb the flow of ki. The important thing is to remember that they are never the enemy. Think instead in terms of mutual welfare and benefit. A key tenet of the martial arts is mutual respect for an opponent. In Aikido you can neutralize or deflect an attack by blending with the other’s energy without causing harm to the opponent. If you think of your exchange as fighting then you are resisting. Fighting is resisting and generating more conflict which wastes energy and is ultimately fruitless. Fighting the other does not change minds or hearts. In business and in life, attempts to make the other look foolish or engaging in ad hominem attacks is ignoble, unwise, and counter productive.
(7) Go with the flow. This may sound to you like some groovy expression from the ’60s, but it is actually very practical. “Going with the flow” does not mean to act passively—quite the contrary. Going with the flow comes from a place of total awareness and an understanding of how things actually are in reality. Remember the universe and nature are our greatest teacher. The energy of a stream, for example, flows through the forest smoothly having created its path around rocks and myriad natural obstacles. Or look how the bamboo in the same forest sways and bends in the wind but never breaks. When you remain calm and in harmony with your own personal state and the state of your surroundings your natural energy can flow smoothly, but if you resist and push back from a place of stress and anger your energy creates a discordance leading to bad results for all concerned.
There may be times, particularly during a Q&A session, when the line of questioning may seem especially challenging and even hostile. But there is no reason to feel intimidated. The only person who can get you off balance is yourself.
Slides: We can't control how people think or behave. Yet, the only real enemy is inside us; this we can control. How we respond to a tough situation is entirely up to us.
You could add a few more aikido principles:
Awase - blending with your audience. This relates to going with the flow.
Sensen no sen - The founder of aikido said: “It is not a question of either ‘sensen no sen’ or ‘sen no sen.’ If I were to try to verbalize it I would say that you control your opponent without trying to control him. That is, the state of continuous victory. There isn’t any question of winning over or losing to an opponent. In this sense, there is no opponent in aikido. Even if you have an opponent, he becomes a part of you, a partner you control only.”
Posted by: Ellis | October 28, 2010 at 07:43 PM
Excellent, Ellis. Good points indeed. Thanks! -g
Posted by: garr | October 28, 2010 at 07:48 PM
What an outstanding article, and just what I needed today, Garr.....Thank you!!!!!
Posted by: Mike Sporer | October 29, 2010 at 04:05 AM
This is an excellent post! As a project manager, those principles are truly powerful when confronted with hostile stakeholders that want to to derail your project (or seem like it anyway). Thank you so much!
Posted by: Christian | October 29, 2010 at 10:59 AM