Ki Moments Blog

Support for life’s “key” moments.

March 27, 2018

Aikido Off the Mat: Tenkan and Acknowledgment

Aikido Off the Mat: Tenkan and Acknowledgment


(from my new book, Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace, to be published April 2019, by Career Press)

Quite a few Ki Moments posts over the years have focused on the power of acknowledgment in difficult conversations. I've even called it the "secret sauce" on occasion, because acknowledgment demonstrates respect for my partner’s position, and respect is a powerful thing.

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

Imagine you and I are facing each other on the mat. 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 represents the conflict issue. My arms and your arms correspond to our differing opinions and beliefs, all directed toward the issue. This oppositional stance 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 this face-to-face stance 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.
  • People 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 we can direct our joint 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.

Aikido Off the Mat

Verbal acknowledgment of someone else’s point of view is like the tenkan. You show you understand the speaker’s intention, hopes, and best self.

In aikido, when I tenkan, I align with my partner’s energy. Verbal acknowledgment does this, too, and it helps the conversation move toward problem solving, since it’s likely you won’t move off your position until your message is heard.

As soon as I pivot from pushing for my way in the conflict to trying to understand and acknowledging what I hear, 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.

The beauty of it all is that only one of us has to move for things to change for us both of us.

Why Me?

Two important aspects of the tenkan metaphor raise frequent questions in my workshops and coaching:

Why me? acknowledgment-aikido-tenkan-kanji

Students often ask why it is that they should have to move first. Simply put, the person who has the skill uses the skill. And, in offering this gift, you become a model for others. Waiting for someone without skill to move may take a long time and prolong the conflict. If they don’t know how to move into curiosity and acknowledgment, what choice will you make?

This feels like manipulation.

If it feels like you’re listening hard and saying all the right words just to get your partner to do something you want them to do but may not be in their interest, then it’s probably manipulation. If, however, you’re sincere in your desire to learn from your partner, to see their worldview, and to resolve the conflict, you’re practicing inquiry and acknowledgment.

Really acknowledging the other in a difficult conversation is an acquired skill. It takes practice, and it changes many a conflict into a collaborative effort to find a solution. 

Good ki!

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