Verbal aikido

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 28: Verbal aikido

Do you ever feel attacked by someone? Not punched or kicked, but attacked with words, expressions, or emotions? We certainly have. In this chapter, we’ll explain how you can take the principles of aikido, which deal with physical attacks, and apply those same principles to verbal attacks as well, using verbal aikido.1

There are six basic ways to respond to a verbal attack. They correspond to the six ways of responding to a physical attack. Each one can be a useful response depending on the situation. The six responses are:

1. Fighting Back

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Someone attacks you and you attack them in return. It’s simple.

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: Shut up and get off my back!

You can use Fighting Back as a last resort, but it usually ends with everyone involved getting hurt. It is as likely to create conflict as it is to end it. We often choose Fighting Back when we don’t realize that we have a choice. When you experience an impulse to fight back, consider the other five responses before acting.

2. Withdrawal

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Someone attacks you and you retreat.

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: Look, I don’t have time to talk about this right now; I’m in the middle of studying for my finals. (goes off to finish studying)

Withdrawal, though much-maligned, is a useful strategy for when the time and place are simply wrong, or for when nothing else works and you have an escape route open.

3. Parley

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Someone attacks you and you look for a compromise.

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: I’ve been swamped recently. Maybe we can work out a rotation to help us both?

The strength of Parley lies in give-and-take, trying to find a fair resolution for both parties. It’s often the best option possible when you and your attacker are ultimately not on the same team.

4. Doing Nothing

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Someone attacks you and you do nothing.

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: (says nothing and waits)

In some situations, especially when the attack makes no sense, Doing Nothing is the most useful response possible. It gives you time to formulate a response and can help you find out what’s actually behind an attack. Your attacker may feel compelled to fill the silence, giving you more information about what they are thinking or why they attacked you.

5. Deception

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Someone attacks you and you deceive or distract them.

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: My… carpal tunnel is acting up today.

Deception is a limited response. It never solves a problem; it only buys a little time. Use Deception when you think that distracting your attacker might defuse their attack or to avoid an ill-timed conversation.We don’t care for Deception much because we value openness and honesty, but it can be useful in some situations. A woman once told her attempted rapist that she had a venereal disease and he left her alone. That was certainly a good use of deception.

6. Aiki

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Someone attacks you and you turn to see things from their point of view.

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: Yeah, it really sucks to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes, especially when you asked me to do them. I can see why you’re upset!

This is the big one. Aiki is by far the most useful and effective response to an attack; it creates a win/win situation.

People usually attack because they feel upset. They feel unhappy and attack you to somehow make it better. Every attack is a cry for help. With Aiki, you can give them that help, protect yourself from attack, and improve your interpersonal relationships, all at the same time!

Here’s what happens when you use Aiki: Someone attacks you, but you are not there being attacked; you are seeing things from their point of view, hearing their words, and showing them that you understand their feelings. It is important to note that you do not have to agree in order to use Aiki; all you need to do is to acknowledge that your attacker’s feelings are valid.

At that point, there’s generally a pause as the person notices that their attack isn’t hitting anything, that the fight they expected isn’t materializing. People don’t know how to react to that, so their surprise manifests as a distinct pause. After that pause, you can gently lead them toward the real issue and work together to solve the problem. Aiki transforms conflict into harmony.

Aiki requires not only empathy, but also some practice putting that empathy into words. Here’s an example of an exchange that is not Aiki:

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: Yeah, I can see why you’d be mad. You’re right, I am lazy and I never do anything right. I’m a worthless hunk of slime, just like this hunk of slime right here on this dirty dish.

That’s not Aiki, that’s self-deprecation. It’s a veiled form of Fighting Back; you’re implying, “My attacker is a bad, mean person for beating up on helpless little me.” Your attacker doesn’t feel understood or heard, but instead feels frustrated or angry. They might even feel like they have to defend you from yourself.

If you’re not careful, sometimes Aiki can come across as condescending or holier-than-thou:

Attacker: You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: I can see how you would feel that way. You expected me to do the dishes and you got attached to that expectation. No wonder you’re feeling angry; I don’t blame you for that. After all, expectations and attachments are part of being human.

Attacker: Oh, aren’t you such a mighty guru, taking pity on poor lowly me for having feelings! (throws dish)

It’s important to come across with empathy rather than pity. If you sound condescending, your attacker will react with more anger and you won’t get anywhere. This works best, naturally, if you’re feeling empathy rather than pity. Remember, you don’t have to agree with your attacker, but you do have to put yourself in their shoes and make a clear attempt to understand.

Even with the best knowledge combined with the best intent, sometimes you still won’t be able to get through if the other person isn’t willing to listen to you, but we’ve found Aiki to have the best chance of success in most circumstances.

Nonverbal communication is also important in Aiki:

Attacker: (points accusingly) You lazy so-and-so, you didn’t do the dishes and now we’ve got no clean plates. You never do anything right!

You: (arms at sides, palms open) Yeah, it really sucks to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes. (takes a soft step toward Attacker and looks into Attacker’s eyes) I can see why you’d be mad. (gently takes Attacker’s hand)

Just as different people have different verbal communication styles, different people have different nonverbal communication styles. For example, some people may not want to be touched when they’re angry. If you know your attacker well, you can communicate both verbally and nonverbally in the way you think will be most effective for that person.

Kyeli’s Story: Not Enough Blue!

I ordered a sculpture from an online store. I’d wanted it for a decade and I finally had the means to procure it. I felt extremely happy and eagerly awaited its arrival. When it did arrive, I opened it up, only to discover that the coloration was quite different than I had expected.

I felt dismayed. I went to the store’s website in a huff, looking for an email address so I could send a lengthy complaint. Instead, I found a phone number and decided that making my complaint via phone would be even more satisfying. I made the call.

I started off by saying that I had a problem with my recent order. The shopkeeper said, “Well, tell me all about it and we’ll see how we can fix it.”

I was all ready to launch into a lengthy tirade. I began with, “I bought this sculpture. Upon its arrival I discovered that the coloration is wrong.”

The man on the phone made sympathetic noises and said, “I know what it feels like to expect one thing and get something different. How disappointing! Let’s look at other examples of the sculpture together and see if we can find one that better matches your expectations.”

Boom! Immediately, I went from angry and ready for a fight to calm and ready to work things out in a helpful manner. I spent several minutes on the phone, we came to a pleasant conclusion, and I disconnected in a good mood.

It wasn’t until I was describing the situation later to Pace that she pointed out the shopkeeper had used Aiki with me. He had listened to my complaint, sympathized with my feelings, and worked with me to make things better. I felt heard and understood right from the start, and this enabled us to communicate effectively and pleasantly.

Aiki will not work unless it comes from the heart. If you try to use Aiki manipulatively to avoid a conflict, that’s Deception and not Aiki. Your attacker may perceive that they are not being truly heard or understood and will continue to fight.

Kyeli’s Story: It’s Super Effective!

Aiki can calm me down in the midst of a real angerball moment. If I’m upset at Pace and she moves gently toward me, hands outstretched, voice low, compassion in her eyes, I know I’m being heard. She’s listening to me and making every attempt to understand me. Even if she fails to understand me, she’s trying. We’re not against each other anymore even if I’m still hurt or angry. Often this will transform my anger into its real source — fear — and I’ll start crying. Now, we can really begin to communicate and get to the bottom of what was hurting me from the start.

It works on me even though I can recognize when Pace is using it; it’s that effective!

When Aiki is used from the heart, openly and honestly, it can stop a verbal attack right in its tracks. Think of a time when you’ve lashed out. What were you really feeling? Anger? Fear? Helplessness? When we’re upset or angry, the first thing we need is to be heard. We need to express ourselves, to get our feelings out, and to know they were received. Aiki accomplishes this effectively and compassionately.

While we find all six of these techniques beneficial in some cases, for most situations we recommend Aiki — given honestly and from the heart — as the best response to a verbal attack.


1. We learned about verbal aikido by reading Aikido in Everyday Life: Giving in to Get Your Way by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller. We highly recommend it!

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