Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Conversation and the Martial Arts

Yesterday Peter Bregman offered some excellent advice for dealing with contentious conversation. Even better, I like the way he reasoned his way through the problem. Link here.

Sometimes conversation feels like warfare. Someone starts screaming at you. Or someone catches you off guard with an aggressively critical remark. You feel that you are under attack.

Normally, you will first try to defend yourself. You deny the charges; you counterattack with your own grievances. The war escalates until, inevitably, someone says something that cannot be taken back. Your relationship is damaged beyond repair.

But how do you solve the conflict, or better, how do you head it off before it becomes a knock/down drag/out fight.

When conflict arises in a relationship you want to resolve it amicably. You want to transform the conflict into a conversation and the conversation into a negotiation.

When you are faced with a surprise verbal attack, Bregman advises: Don't push back. When someone is angry, shouting, incensed beyond reason, do not take the bait and reply in kind.

Of course, we are hard-wired to defend ourselves. The problem is, when we start defending ourselves, we start sounding defensive. This merely fuels the flames, because it convinces the other person that he is right.

When Bregman implies that we should not push back, he seems to be evoking ju-jitsu. The Japanese technique translates as: the art of softness or the way of yielding. It involves learning how to use an attacker's energy against him.

In practice, it means that when someone lunges at you you do not lunge back. You try to redirect his energy so that he falls down.

Bregman translates this into conversational terms by saying that when someone starts screaming at you, you should ask a question. When someone is talking too much or is too excited by their verbal firepower, you ask them to tell you more. To me this feels like verbal ju-jitsu.

You are avoiding the tendency to fight back, but you are not offering a quick and somewhat cowardly apology and you are also not empathizing with your attacker.

You are offering to hear him out, to provide him with the greatest space to air his grievance. It will almost feel as though you are not the object of his wrath.

Bregman recommends simple questions: Can you tell me more? Or else, what did you have in mind?

This approach also gives you time to collect your thoughts before formulating anything like a response. When someone has prepared and rehearsed an attack, you cannot respond effectively by just saying whatever comes to mind.

Following Bregman's advice is not intuitively obvious. It was not obvious to him either. It did not come easily.

He decided that he would have to train himself, in much the same way that a practitioner of the martial arts would.

In his words: "When people learn a martial art, they practice the same move endlessly until it becomes automatic and available when they are ambushed. I realized that day that I needed a conversational equivalent. So I resolved to make a change. I created my new knee-jerk reaction: to ask a question."

Whenever he is surprised and at a loss for words, he simply asks a question. Surely it takes time and assiduous practice to develop this skill. But it is as much a habit as a skill. The goal is to make it automatic, so that you do not even have to think about it before you do it. Thus, you will overcome one of your greatest enemies, the tendency to be self-conscious.

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