Frequently Asked Questions
About Aikido, Centering, Conflict and Communication
by Judy Ringer
The following are questions from clients, workshop participants, and newsletter subscribers. I hope you find them useful. If you find your interest piqued and want to go further, register for a public workshop, subscribe to my newsletter or blog, or submit a question of your own.
On Aikido and Conflict
Question: How does the martial art Aikido apply in everyday conflict situations?
The basic premise of Aikido is that an attack is energy that can be utilized and redirected. Instead of blocking and punching, the Aikidoist blends with the attack in order to manage it. Resistance is replaced with engagement. Aikido students train themselves to capture the opponent's action and redirect it with techniques of martial efficiency and power. At the same time, we become aware of the tendency to overreact to opposition, and we learn to remain centered under all conditions. These are skills, principles, and ways of seeing the world that can be used off the mat – in the workplace, and in everyday life.
Here are two examples of off-the-mat Aikido in action, thanks to workshop participants who have sent me their experiences:
- During a phone conversation with a dissatisfied client a few days after the workshop, I slipped directly into typical conquest mode. I felt myself tensing up for a fight. I was determined to prove to this woman her complaint was unwarranted. When I realized our discussion was going nowhere fast, I remembered the wisdom of embracing the opponent’s energy, took a deep centering breath and listened until my dialogue partner was ready to listen to me. When she was finished I clearly stated I couldn’t accommodate her exact request to remedy the problem, but that I could make other changes in response to her call. I believe she ended up feeling heard. Letting go of ego and blending with the client’s energy actually helped improve our service.
- A few days before my first presentation in front of a group, I felt my anxiety and fear grow. It was all consuming. I had to do something. I thought of Aikido and how one blends with the opponent’s energy instead of fighting it. I embraced my fear, accepting that it was all right to be nervous under these conditions. This thought process changed my whole attitude, and I was able to begin visualizing myself giving a successful talk instead of being controlled by fear.
Question: In your workshops and writing, you use the word “center” a lot. What is center? How do you choose to be centered and how can you stay there?
When I refer to center or the centered state, I’m talking about a state of being that includes mind, body and spirit and affects the way we interact with our environment. It’s a way of being in the world, of experiencing the way life comes at you. Some people might say it’s an attitude toward life. When we’re centered, we’re in control of how we receive the life energy that others extend toward us. We’re in control of us. We aren’t in control of anything else. But we are in control of how we engage with the “anything else.”
When we’re centered we’re in the present moment. And it’s a condition we can cultivate. The effects of centering are numerous; vitality increases, the senses are sharpened, and one is less affected by everyday irritations. The tendency to overreact is minimized and perspective is broadened. This state is referred to in Japan as having hara or strong ki, the inner quality that aids the student of Aikido to develop to his or her fullest potential in every area of life.
In my book, Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Gifts in Daily Conflict, I write more about the centered state, how I and others experience it, and the difference that centering makes in living a purposeful life.
Question: How does one find their center. I don't have one picture or version of "center." Is it just a matter of bringing yourself fully into the moment? And how do you do that in an environment that is not calm?
First, center is different for each of us. For me it is "bringing yourself fully into the moment.” Especially if the environment is not calm, it’s great to find that quiet stillness at your core.
Center is a state of physical and emotional stability. It's a feeling that says, "I’m ready. I can handle this." It's also a question I ask myself: "Where’s the gift here?” Or “Where’s the learning?" or “What am I resisting?” When I center I can observe and communicate with myself. This ability to “meta-communicate” yields awareness and choice over my actions.
Personally, I recognize the centered state by an “in-the-body” kinesthetic sense and by this ability to meta-communicate. The best way to find your center is to keep practicing, experimenting, and asking the question of yourself.
Question: Is centering the same as confidence or self-esteem?
Not exactly, though confidence and self-esteem are enhanced by the practice of centering. Center is a quality that includes confidence. When you center, you feel in control of yourself and your actions. You feel balanced, and you experience an increase in self-esteem. When you're centered, you feel good about yourself. You need no one else's stamp of approval. There are no attachments to past or future worries, because you dwell in the present. You're flexible, focused and connected to everything and everyone around you. You have options and are in a place of continuous discovery and learning. When you choose center, you become more you.
Question: Can you practice centering?
Centering can be practiced anytime, anywhere. On my morning walk I practice moving from center, and this changes my posture, stride and attitude. Sitting at my desk I center and notice it's time for a break. Before picking up the telephone handset I take a breath and center, and I feel better about the way I connect with the person at the other end of the line. Before sending that e-mail – center. Before an interview or presentation, as I enter the room I think: "Center." Any exercise or sporting activity is a great way to practice centering.
Your breathing is one of the best gauges of center. When you stop breathing (which often happens under stress), you become uncentered. Hold your breath now and you’ll see how off-balance you feel. One great way to practice moving in and out of the centered state is to begin to notice your breath. If you’ve stopped breathing, open your throat and let your breath and spirit flow. You’ll come back to center. I carry a little card in my wallet that says: Keep Breathing. Try it.
Question: It's fairly easy for me to center when I know a difficult situation, meeting or conversation is coming up. But what do you do when you're suddenly in a conflict that you hadn't planned on – a surprise attack?!
As soon as you have the awareness that you're off center, you can re- center. Breathe, smile, and reconnect with your sense of stability. Expand your energy and connect with your surroundings. Acknowledge your opponent by listening. If he’s emotional, let him vent. Listening gives you space and time to breathe and calm yourself. As you center, you'll find that you have more options and can begin to use them.
Question: Would you suggest some ways to start the day “centered?”
First, notice how you begin your day now. Do you begin with noise?--the radio, CD player, TV, hair dryer, coffee grinder? We don’t usually give ourselves time to settle in, to appreciate the beginning of a new day. Try one or more of the following:
- At the beginning of each day, set aside time for you--quiet reflection, meditation, prayer, or inspirational reading or music.
- Let your first waking thought be of someone or something that you’re grateful for.
- Sit alone for 10 to 20 minutes, quietly collecting your thoughts and your energy for the day ahead.
- Start a breathing practice. There are many books and online resources all meant to help clean out the debris that piles up everyday in our bodies and minds. A simple but effective one that I use everyday is: breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of 4. Let the breath settle into your center to the count of 2. Using a whispered Haaaaaa sound, exhale from center through the mouth to the count of 6.
Whatever you choose, make a commitment to continue for at least 30 days. It will become easier after that. And you’ll notice that it makes a big difference in your life.
Conflict at Work
Question: I work with a service rep in another department who is very difficult. I leave every exchange feeling as if I’d been in a battle.
I had a similar conflict some years ago. The person had a strong effect on me, and I would lose my center every time. Then I thought about using the conflict as a centering practice. Whenever we met, I'd practice centering. I'd lose it quickly at first, I'd re-center, lose it again, re-center. I gradually grew more centered and, oddly enough, began to look forward to our meetings so that I could practice. We're good friends today.
There are always going to be difficult people. The question is, can you transform these situations into opportunities to increase your ability to respond with awareness? When do you "lose it?" Is it when you see the person or is it just thinking about them? Is it their tone of voice, a look, an inconsistency in words or behavior? Ask yourself, is it their action, or the way you receive it? Consider that you have a choice in the way you respond, and you'll begin to take your power back.
Question: I’m frustrated with my new assistant’s inability to complete assignments to my standards. She just doesn’t get it.
Start with yourself, knowing that you have the right to want things the way you want them. When giving direction, be specific about details, and don't assume that your assistant understands. Ask her to repeat what she thinks you’ve said.
If work is not done correctly, find something that you appreciate first, and then be clear about what needs to be done differently. Notice my use of words--not "wrong," but "differently."
For example, "Susan, thank you for scheduling the director’s appointments while I was gone. I appreciate that he got to all his meetings on time. However, after you used my calendar, I found I could not locate some important appointments that I know were there. Can you show me what you did when you were handling the calendar?" (Watch, listen, and see what she did.) Then, "next time, I'd like you to do it this way . . . "
By being detailed, specific and patient in your instruction, you may find that you can give your assistant more responsibility, leaving you more time for the tasks only you can do.
Question: I keep having run-ins with my coworker. I ask him for something and get resistance. Sometimes it’s nonverbal. Sometimes he has reasons why he can’t do things when I need them. I can be a perfectionist, but my way usually gets the job done well.
It’s no fun to work so closely with someone with whom every interaction seems like a test. And it’s okay to want things done a certain way. However, it’s also important to get to the source of your coworker’s resistance, because if you’re feeling resistance, he probably is too.
You might start by asking him for suggestions on how to complete a project before you start. Where does he think you’ll each be most useful? You may find more cooperation and enthusiasm for the project. If that fails, talk to him about the difficulty as you see it and ask what things look like from his point of view. Leave lots of room for him to tell you. Stay curious and look for solutions.
Question: Is there an easy way to remember how to deal with highly charged conflict? I love my family, but I have the hardest time with conflict at home.
Whenever I think about home and family conflict, I remember what a good friend once said to me: “Our family really knows how to push our buttons--because they installed them.” It’s more difficult to deal with family conflict, because the patterns we’ve created with each other are entrenched.
Here's an easy acronym I learned from Thomas Crum, author of The Magic of Conflict and Journey to Center. He uses it with kids, but it works great at any age--the BLT.
- B – Breathe and Be Centered. Stop, take a deep breath, and center yourself. Don’t do or say anything until you’ve calmed down, composed yourself and reconnected to what’s really important in the relationship.
- L – Learn. Before telling your partner, child, sibling or loved one just exactly how life would improve if they lived it according to your advice, first listen to them and learn what’s important from their point of view. Stand or sit beside them instead of face to face. Use your imagination to put yourself in their shoes. This is a great gift, by the way. Think of the last time somebody really listened to you. How did it feel?
- T – Talk. When your conflict partner feels listened to (maybe for the first time in the relationship), they can relax. You heard them. Now they’re ready to hear your side. Don’t rebut what they said. Confirm it by repeating it in your own words and checking for accuracy. This is an important step. Then, speaking from center, say what’s important to you. Keep your center, and help them stay centered, by using language that confides rather than blames. (Hint: use the word “I” a lot and “You” as little as possible.)
We all want to understand and be understood. The dance of family conflict changes with a single step in a new direction.
Engaging Others in Problem-Solving
Question: What if you are the only one interested in resolving the conflict?
It only takes one person to begin the resolution of a conflict. The belief that all people involved have to agree to resolve the conflict often stops anyone from beginning the process. Perhaps you think you're the only one interested because you have a specific outcome in mind. You may need to give up your view of what "should" be and focus on what is. When you begin to look at the situation from a more discovering place, you will become curious about your partner's needs, hopes, and frustrations. You’ll be more flexible and less judgmental. And you’ll move from feeling like a victim to being proactive in searching for solutions that work for all parties. Alter your focus from trying to change them, and change yourself instead. Can you do this? It takes true power and a strong center. But you will find that when you change, everything changes.
Question: What do you do with emotions in the middle of a conflict? Sometimes I feel so full of rage I can't talk.
Emotions are what make conflict challenging. And there is no quick-fix. But you can begin to acknowledge your emotional energy and retrain your reactive state to be more responsive.
- When you become emotional, take several deep breaths and exhale fully and slowly. Center yourself. This will take a commitment on your part to change and is the first step. You may not have any choice over the emotions that show up, but you do have choice about how you express them.
- Listen before you speak. Become curious about the situation, your conflict partner, and anything else you can be curious about. Make yourself be quiet and attentive.
- State your thoughts, hopes, and feelings in a way that reduces defensiveness. As you address the differences between your expectations and what actually occurred, re- center periodically.
- Search for common ground. Whatever the emotion, it’s a good idea to acknowledge and appreciate them – yours and theirs. Don't suppress your emotions but don't act them out either. Use their energy in a conscious, volitional way.
- Get additional practice in centering and communication skills through training, coaching or counseling. Eventually you will acquire the patience to honor your emotions and express them in good listening and talking behavior.
Question: "Limbo" is one of my biggest challenges, and it unbalances me unbelievably. Embarking on change is no sweat next to not having any particular direction in which to focus. Can you speak to coping with uncertainty?
When things are uncertain, I try to visualize as many outcomes as possible, then choose the one I like best (even if I’m not sure it will happen). Or I choose pieces of the outcome that I’m pretty sure I want (where I’m living, what I’m earning, where I’m working), and I gradually begin to move toward it. Sometimes the "working toward" is nothing more than going about my daily routine as best I can and continuing to send energy toward the vision, or the parts that I can see. I do my best and let the rest go.
If it’s relationship "limbo" and I can’t control what action the other person will take, I envision the best possible outcome for each of us, even though I’m not sure what that looks like. I leave it to a power greater than myself to decide.
When you’re in "limbo"--whatever kind it is--do what you can to take care of yourself. Take yourself out to lunch, sit in the park, go on a hike, or walk with a friend. Gradually you’ll find your direction.
On Powerful Presentations
Question: Next week I’m speaking to a group that has chewed up and spit out other presenters. Reportedly they think that no one is as smart, talented, or competent as they. How do I frame this so that I won’t be scared to death and immediately fulfill their expectations of incompetence?
Utilize the energy of "expert" audiences by deferring to their knowledge whenever possible. Acknowledge their expertise without disclaiming or belittling yourself or your message. Coming from your own power, invite their contributions. Arrogance comes naturally from a place of wanting to prove what they know and to "show off" a bit. So let them show off wherever it seems appropriate. Similarly, have confidence in your own knowledge and passion about your topic, knowing you are there for a good reason. Your perspective is unique and they will be grateful to add it to their base. Make the audience your ally and the presentation an adventure in co-creation.
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About the Author
Judy Ringer is a conflict and communication skills trainer, black belt in Aikido, and founder of Power & Presence Training and Portsmouth Aikido. Would you like free tips and articles every month? Subscribe to Ki Moments!
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