After 28 years of marriage, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear me say my husband I and get into arguments, at times. Usually, it ends up with a sarcastic “You’re right, I am wrong” response. For us, they are small conflict skirmishes. Arguments, in general, emphasize binary thinking with opposites: truth/lie; right/wrong; black/white; yes/no; either/or and so forth. Over recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic puts a spotlight on binary thinking here in the U.S. Recently, when discussing the Stay at Home, Work Safe orders extending into June, someone said to me “It doesn’t matter…everyone is out and about anyway” which I silently thought “It DOES matter.” I checked my defensive instinct to react, paused, and replied with “maybe there is some truth to that statement.” This strategy essentially kept the conversation from quickly irking my friend and escalating into the same old debate patterns.
Binary thinking generally places each person in the argument on opposite sides of one another’s position. Oh, but to be right and win my argument! And yet, when I push my point where the other concedes, did I win? I must ask myself what the win is in being right…all the time especially when I know how it negatively impacts the relationship. It invalidates the other person’s point of view often making them feel unheard and not valued. A common conversation as of late is wearing masks out in public. It is one thing when a person chooses not to wear a mask because it is their right. When someone then says, “You should be wearing a mask!” when one believes they have a right not to wear a mask, the conversation quickly escalates into a conflict. And, we have already seen physical altercations and even people who have died as a result of these quickly heated disputes. I choose to wear a mask in public because of my weakened immune system to fight off COVID-19.
The impact of this type of dualistic thinking and our engagement with others is often perceived as an attack, a verbal attack, and commonly followed by a defensive reaction. It also limits our ability to listen for different perspectives, douses our curiosity, and blinds us to new ideas and possibilities.
What do we do if we are on the receiving end of a verbal attack placing us in a position to fight, dismiss, or avoid the conversation altogether? As a novice Aikidoist, I have been practicing how to redirect verbal attacks. My motivation for pursuing Verbal Aikido is the self-mastery of redirecting these verbal conflict skirmishes without harming someone with my own words. It is about learning how to quickly “destabilize” the tension-filled attack to a conversation within a very short period in a couple of minutes. I have been applying a 3-step process guided by Luke Archer, master verbal Aikidoist and author of two Verbal Aikido books. The 3-step process is simple and yet the endless strategies require practice and time to master. The first step is learning how to find your center so when you are verbally attacked, you can find your balance quickly to engage the next two steps. And most importantly, this first step creates an open frame to listen. The second step is focused on seeking to understand the other person by “drawing out” and using empathetic listening. There are a number of short movements such as “Say more about what you mean” or “there may be some truth to that statement.” Another short movement I learned recently for this second step is to say in response to the verbal attack “That is one theory. Say more about where you learned this theory.” Then, listen for their understanding. The Aikidoist can then offer “Would you be willing to hear another perspective or theory?” Depending on how the other person responds, you can then move into the third step which is to offer an “Ai-Ki” as a way to rebalance the energy from escalation to conversation. The Aikidoist can say “How do you propose we move forward from this point?” or “If you are interested, let’s revisit and keep the dialogue going so we can fully understand each other. Would this work for you?” You can also say “Let’s agree to disagree.”
As I continue to work on my green belt in Verbal Aikido, I am blessed to be guided by Luke Archer. Anyone is invited to try out Verbal Aikido techniques. We practice virtually almost every Wednesday using the concept of the dojo practice mat where we verbally spar with each other applying the 3-step process and trying out different movements and techniques. To join, simply go to Verbal Aikido – The Club to check out the weekly dates and times the group meets on Zoom.