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The first principle in virtually any Aikido Technique is to “Get Off of the Line”.  This refers to moving just enough to one side of the path of an attack so as to not be met with the full force of it.  But it is also important not to move too much; this would cause you to completely disengage from the attacker and then have no means of influencing or directing their energy.

That of course is in the context of physical conflict; but what about verbal, and especially emotionally charged verbal conflict?

In relation to heated situations, we often hear and use, the phrases “take a deep breath” or “take a step back”. This is good advice, but these are merely physical exercises to help you with the real task, managing your own emotional response to something that the other party has said or done.  Without the latter you may find yourself taking a step back and a deep breath, and then stepping right back in to punch the other person in the nose (or shake your finger in their face, or yell at them…).

The purpose of taking a step back is to increase your distance from something that the primal portion of your brain sees as an immediate threat, this helps to lessen the “fight or flight” response. Taking a deep breath is also a means of controlling your body’s physical reaction. That same “fight or flight” reaction releases adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and your respiratory rate. Taking long slow deep breaths helps to counteract this, but if you do not understand the purpose behind it, it may not help you as much as it could.

We have all seen this cycle of conflict; someone says something that upsets me, I react in an emotional fashion and respond with something that upsets them, they respond even more upset, I respond even more upset… With each round emotions get higher, voices get louder and both parties become less capable of dealing with the matter in a productive way.

Removing yourself from the cycle of heightened emotion and escalating conflict mainly requires the ability to:

  1. recognize the emotional response both in yourself and in the other party, and
  1. examine and understand it in order to explore and deal with its root cause.

If someone yells at me “You son of a motherless goat!” (to steal a line from Steve Martin in The 3 Amigos), and my reaction is “Hey! You can’t call me that!” then this conflict, for me, is about him calling me a name, while for him it is about something completely different, the reason he called me that name in the first place.  We are having two entirely different arguments, and so will never managed to resolve either of them.

If instead my internal reaction is something more like “He called me a name and that makes me angry, but he is clearly angry also; I wonder what he is angry about.” Then I  have the ability to begin a useful dialogue by asking the question “what are you angry about?” and, and this is the more difficult and yet more crucial part, listening to the answer.

– Watch for the next installment in this 4-part series, “Creating a Common Centre”.