Ki Moments Blog

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The Secret Ingredient in Difficult Conversations: Acknowledgment

The Secret Ingredient in Difficult Conversations: Acknowledgment


I'm writing a new book about how to manage and resolve employee confict. One of the key concepts in the book and a "ki" ingredient in working with conflict is acknowledgment. Possibly the most underutilized communication skill, acknowledgment is the secret to turning difficult conversations around.

Because it demonstrates a willingness and ability to reflect back a view or thought process that is different and possibly in opposition to your own, acknowledgment makes a powerful statement. It says, “I heard you, I’m trying to understand, and this is the meaning I’m making out of what I heard.” It shows respect and a disposition toward resolution.

Examples of acknowledging and clarifying statements:

  • What I hear you saying is….
  • That sounds important. Can you say more?
  • I’m sorry my action had that impact on you.
  • From what I gather, you’re hoping ….
  • Thank you for this information.
  • I appreciate your thinking on this.
  • Is there anything else?

Aikido Off the Mat: Tenkan 転換

In aikido, there’s a body movement called tenkan, most often translated as “convert” or “change.” Tenkan “converts” the attack into energy I can use and is a physical embodiment of acknowledgment.

Imagine you and I are face to face. You grab my wrist with both hands and hold on. I can’t free myself from the grip. In fact the more I struggle, the tighter the grip becomes. The wrist grab is the conflict issue. My arms and your arms represent our differing opinions and beliefs, all directed toward the issue. This face-to-face posture is how most of us deal with conflict--both parties advocating until we’re blue in the face. I want you to hear me, and you want me to hear you. And no one is listening.

Tenkan happens in aikido when I pivot from my face-to-face position with you to one in which I’m standing side by side with you. When I tenkan, a lot of things change:

We’re both facing the same direction. I can see what you’re seeing. Also...

  • Anyone looking at us would say we’re partners rather than opponents.
  • The issue is now positioned in front of our arms (our opinions and beliefs) so that we can direct our energy toward attacking and solving the problem, instead of attacking each other.
  • It’s more difficult for you to hold on to my wrist. When I pivot to your side, there is nothing to fight.
  • Things free up generally.

When I tenkan, I align with your energy. Verbal acknowledgment does this, too, and helps the conversation move toward problem solving, since you will not move off your position until your message is heard.

As soon as I pivot from needing you to hear my position in the conflict to trying to understand yours, the conversation lightens. You can unburden yourself of all you need to say. And if I’m successful in listening for understanding, you may eventually reciprocate. In other words, once your message--your position--is acknowledged, you can also move. You no longer have to defend. And the beauty of it all is that it only takes one person to move for things to change.

Acknowledgment takes practice. In my own difficult conversations, I try to understand my conversation partner well enough to make their case for them. When I can do this, I know I’ve picked up on their point of view. I learn where they stand and they see that, and we can move on.

The next time you're in a converstion that feels stuck, try asking a question, listening for understanding, and acknowledging what you hear. Don't stop there. Ask, listen, acknowledge, until your partner is completely finished telling their story. 

Let me know how it goes!