When attacked verbally, what do you do? Do you go into fight, flight, or freeze mode? If so, there’s another way to respond.
A Midnight Encounter in a Portland Pub
Divided by the Willamette River and Burnside Street, Portland is known by its four quadrants—Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. The northeast quadrant has both nice neighborhoods and a couple of sketchy areas. One Friday night after stopping at a pub for a beer, my friend and I found ourselves in the latter.
At about midnight, we got up to leave the pub. A considerably younger, and substantially bigger man walked up to us. Although well dressed, he was, as they say, in his “cups.” Nearly thrusting his face in mine he said harshly, “What are you two talking about?!”
Although my danger light went on, I didn’t back away, attempt to placate him, or counter his belligerence with my own. Instead, I looked at him calmly and said, “I don’t know. The usual—sports, religion, politics, whatever. Why do you ask?”
“You’re not from around here!” he responded, “What quadrant are you from?”
I said, “Quadrant? What do you mean? Quadrant of the universe? Quadrant of the planet?”
“No!” he said, “Quadrant of Portland? I’m from Northeast and I haven’t been shot!”
While I pondered what to say, he repeated, “I’m from Northeast and I haven’t been shot!”
“That reminds me of a Winston Churchill quote,” I said.
“I don’t like Churchill!” he replied.
“Yes, but you might like this quote: ‘Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at, without result.’”
He paused, evidently struck by the quotation. I repeated, “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at, without result.”
His body posture changed. Shoulders relaxed, face no longer angry and tone no longer harsh, he said, “I do like that quote. I really do.” He extended his hand and I took it. We briefly exchanged small talk and then my friend and I quietly left the pub.
An Alternative Form of Self-Defense—Aikido
Many years ago, I studied karate. Notwithstanding her multi-degreed black belt, my sensei’s favorite saying was “The best fight is the one you avoid.”
Nevertheless, we drilled endlessly on block-strike techniques. The attacker strikes, you block and strike back. On the dojo floor, Sensei had us do pushups on our knuckles. This hardened the striking surface of our fists, which would increase our ability to break boards—or, if necessary, bones.
Many years ago, a Japanese martial arts expert, Morihei Ueshiba, took exception to conventional martial arts. Acknowledging that they were defensive—not intended to encourage aggression—he nevertheless found them lacking because they taught action that could result in injury or even death to the attacker. So Ueshiba developed a martial art form designed to avoid injury to both parties.
From what I’ve learned, aikido presents a marked contrast to the karate I studied. When the attack comes, instead of block-strike, you blend and flow with the attacker’s energy. You turn with the attacker in the same direction, and where you can see what the attacker sees. This helps you channel their energy to a mutually safe place.
I’m not suggesting aikido is “soft” or “wimpy.” I somehow managed to convey this feeling while interviewing a senior sensei of an aikido dojo. He said, “Understand this. If I wanted, I could move you up against that wall and immobilize you. Or I could move you there and break one or more of your limbs. Or I could move you there and snap your neck and kill you.”
After a pause (during which my pulse rate doubled), he chuckled and said, “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t kill you.”
Of course, all I could think was—he didn’t disclaim the middle option!!!
Applying Aikido to Verbal Attacks
Fortunately, I’ve not had to use martial arts in a physical encounter. But I’ve applied aikido principles many times when confronted verbally. Invariably, the outcome has been better than when I went into fight, flight or freeze mode:
- Fight: “No I’m not stupid, you’re stupid!”
- Flight: “Oh gosh, I’m so so so sorry, please forgive me. Pretty please!”
- Freeze: “Um…uh…um…uh”
In my Portland pub encounter, without really thinking about it, I went aikido. Without appearing (or even feeling) intimidated, without backing up, and without moving forward, I blended with the big man’s hostile words. He opened with a question. I responded with a question. He mentioned “quadrants.” So did I. He mentioned the concept of being shot. So did I.
I’ll confess I didn’t know where any of this was going and being served a knuckle sandwich remained a possibility. Yet I kept probing, blending, flowing, and channeling until we ended up where he was no longer hostile.
Like any martial art, verbal aikido takes practice. The first time my sensei told me to do a knuckles pushup on the hardwood floor, I said, “Are you crazy?” (Actually I said this only to myself. She might be 5’3” and 105 pounds, but I sure wouldn’t mess with her!) Eventually the pushups got easy and I even won a competition doing them.
So start by getting in an aikido frame of mind. The next time a verbal attack comes, don’t freeze up, don’t try to hide and don’t return fire. Instead, look calmly and directly at your attacker. Figure out the direction from which he or she is coming. Blend with it, flow with it, and channel that hostile energy to a place where the anger is dissipated and the two of you can agree—or reasonably agree to disagree.
Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Through consulting, executive coaching, and training, he helps organizations maximize the human potential within. He can be reached at email@example.com.