Managing conflict with the Three Steps

The basic strategy in Verbal Aikido, called ‘reaching Ai-ki’ (or balancing the energy of an exchange) is centered on a simple three-step approach:

  1. Receiving the attack with an Inner Smile,
  2. Accompanying the attack to a point of destabilization,
  3. Rebalancing the attack so the attacker may save face.

Everyone already has strengths and weaknesses in each of these steps, but to accomplish Ai-ki correctly, the Verbal Aikidoist must follow successively and successfully each of the three. After only a few attempts at practicing the techniques, you will have a greater understanding of which step or steps you need to work on most, and which you can continue to nurture or develop positively.

Step 1: Receiving an attack with an Inner Smile

In Verbal Aikido the Inner Smile concerns a type of self-knowledge and confidence that enables us to avoid entering into a conflict when someone is consciously or subconsciously attempting to enjoin us in one. It is by far the most important of the steps, but also the most difficult to maintain. However, if mastered correctly, it can eliminate the need for the other two steps entirely.

The Inner Smile is covered in more detail at different stages in the book, but to get you started, here are the basic points you need to know:

  • It can be seen, at this stage, as the sliding point or space between stimulus and response, where we can choose how to react to an attack.
  • We can often perceive this space retrospectively, thinking “I could/should have said/done x”.
  • Focusing on reaching the Inner Smile brings us inevitably closer to it.
  • An Inner Smile is often accentuated by a brief silence.
  • It’s generally counter-productive to let it develop into an ‘outer smile’, as it can easily be misconstrued as mockery or a counter-attack.
  • Developing this skill is, among other things, an open-ended learning path about one’s self.
  • In written form it is transcribed as “[…]”.

What color eyes do you have? I think I can safely assume that they’re not orange. But let’s imagine someone comes at you aggressively, criticizing your hideous orange eyes.

Attacker: “Oh dear Lord, what is up with your orange eyes? They are just the most horrible things I’ve ever seen! You freak! Would you not think of getting lenses or something so you don’t look so revolting?”

As perplexed as you may be by this attack, it’s highly unlikely that you would either get offended, think to counter-attack or even believe that the ‘attacker’ has a valid reason to be aggressive or judgmental. This sort of position in regard to an attack starts to illustrate the sort of ‘untouchable confidence’ that we may feel with the Inner Smile.

Step 2: Accompanying an attack to destabilize

If you haven’t seen martial aikido in action, here’s a quick demonstration of one of the basic techniques.

You may notice the common initial semi-circular swiveling step (as illustrated in figure 1.6); called Irimi or “entering” that is used when dealing with many attacks. Simply put, it is much more difficult to attack someone who is standing by your side.

The same is true in Verbal Aikido and, in starting the second of the three steps, the Aikidoist tries to metaphorically stand side-by-side with the attacker and genuinely attempt to see things from his point of view; to intellectually or logically look in the same direction as him. Very often this move, as it is often unexpected, is destabilizing in itself and can be enough to complete Step 2. For example:

Attacker: “This is totally unacceptable! I’ve been on hold for the last 20 minutes, every operator I talked to has passed the buck and I swear if I don’t get answers now, I’m going to come down to your offices and give you a piece of my mind!”

Aikidoist: “[…] Yeah, I’d be pretty mad too if I was in your shoes.”

Although often quite effective, it doesn’t always work instantly, and more angles may be needed to reach a destabilization point. Other tactics, covered in chapters 4 and 5, demonstrate different ways to destabilize momentarily, giving you space to prepare Step 3.

Step 3: Channeling the attack to a balanced emotional result

During the course of Verbal Aikido training, novice Aikidoists often express their view that an attacker deserves to be left destabilized after an attack. It’s essential to underline that in the non-competitive philosophy of Verbal Aikido, a ‘win-lose’ outcome is never a desired direction. Due to the altruistic nature of this art and the belief in an ethic of reciprocity, the Aikidoist becomes acutely aware of the negative effects that such an outcome may cause. Therefore, having the intention to implement this final step is not only necessary to ensure momentary equilibrium, but to establish a long-term balance of energies.

There are many possible outcomes to an exchange that can be viewed as positive for both sides. The essential thing to remember is that, the objective of the destabilization in Step 2 is to make way for the rebalancing in Step 3. Trying to implement a balancing move before a destabilization invariably results in the attacker gaining a greater position of power, and is thus even harder to recover from.

Using the sequence explained in this chapter, here’s one way the attack on a person’s lateness could be dealt with to increase the possibility of a balanced outcome. Remember, the Inner Smile, accentuated by a brief silence, is annotated as ‘[…]’.

Attacker: “You’re always late!”

Aikidoist: “[…] You seem pretty angry about this!”

Attacker: “Of course I’m angry! You clearly have no respect for anyone’s schedule but your own!”

Aikidoist: “[…] Well I understand how that would upset you, and I’m sorry that it does. What would you like me to do if I realize I’m not going to make it on time in the future?”

Attacker: “I don’t have time for this, just don’t be late! How hard is that to understand?”

Aikidoist: “[…] You’re right, let’s focus on the priority work we have right now, then maybe we can discuss this another time.”

Inflection, intonation, pitch and emphasis are important in understanding and mastering an exchange. The exchanges used to illustrate the use of Verbal Aikido typically give the attacker’s voice intonations of anger, cynicism or negativity. Except where stipulated, the Aikidoist aims at having a voice tone that is mastered, i.e. peaceful and tempered throughout the execution of the three steps – careful to express empathy rather than pity and equality rather than condescension.

Recommended articles

Fight or flight: How do you react to an attack?

Can we really interrupt our reactions?

So what’s this Inner Smile about anyway?


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