Leadership Matters: Reducing Conflict Through Aikido

Traditional Japanese akaido sitting posture
By Holly Buchanan

5 minutes

Apply “go with” martial arts philosophy to communication.

The difference between a good leader and a great leader often comes down to how one handles conflict. Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. Leaders gain or lose respect based on how they respond to and handle it.

Our instincts don’t serve us well in conflict. If we disagree with something that someone says, our natural reaction is to push back, to push against that person. This response can sound defensive or aggressive, causing a loss of respect from employees.

Even if you are not the one pushing against, you are likely to work with employees who will display this behavior. For example, outspoken millennials may resort to this push-against communication style. Younger employees aren’t afraid to share their opinions and ideas or to challenge those of their superiors, according to workplace research

One way to reduce conflict and increase cooperation is to go with, not against people who disagree with you. That is the essence of the Japanese martial arts form known as Aikido. Here are examples of “push-against” responses:

Statement: Here’s the timeline for the project.

Push against: That timeline is unrealistic.

Statement: You missed the deadline. That’s unacceptable.

Push against: It wasn’t my fault. Ryan didn’t get me the numbers in time.

Statement:  We need to raise our fees.

Push against:  That’s not going to work. We’ll lose customers.

When someone says something we disagree with, the natural reaction is to argue for our point of view. But in doing that, the goal is often to invalidate the other person’s point of view—which rarely ends well. Leaders need to be aware of the tendency to push against when they disagree with statements and to avoid unproductive responses when an employee or colleague pushes against them. Is there a better way to respond? Yes, by “going with,” which is the basic philosophy of Aikido. 

Using Aikido to Reduce Conflict and Increase Respect

Aikido is a Japanese martial arts form. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you use martial arts on employees. Aikido is also a life philosophy that can be applied in communication. The philosophy of Aikido is to go with your opponent’s energy. Whether you are the person who is challenging another or being challenged, Aikido is a way to handle conflict without being defensive or aggressive.

Aikido is often translated as a way “of unifying (with) life energy” or “of harmonious spirit,” according to Wikipedia. It was created as an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury. Aikido techniques consist of entering and turning movements that redirect the momentum of an opponent’s attack. Aikido literally means “the way of blending energy” with the aggressor instead of being aggressive or defensive.

Examples of Verbal Aikido

A famous example of verbal Aikido is President Ronald Reagan’s response when he was challenged about his advanced age. Instead of defending himself or denying he was too old to be president (pushing against), he redirected the momentum with humor: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Here’s an example with a business context: 

Statement: What if we train our people and they leave?

Push-against response: Not training our people would be a huge mistake.

Aikido response: What if we don’t train them and they stay?

The person making the statement is essentially arguing for not training employees, so the Aikido response follows that line of thinking.

Here are three tips on using Aikido to steer toward cooperation vs. defensiveness.

1. Don’t make the other person wrong. Instead of responding instinctively from the frame of “You’re wrong,” formulate a response that starts with “You’re right.” Let’s say a manager lays out a deadline for a project, and a team member replies, “That deadline is impossible.”

Push-against response: The project needs to be completed this quarter, so we have to make that deadline.

Aikido response: I know right now this deadline feels impossible. You have a lot on your plate, and this is a tight timeline. Let’s talk about what the obstacles are and what you all need to make this happen.

As this example demonstrates, an Aikido response emphasizes an aspect of an argument that both sides can agree on as a starting point.  

2. Be curious. When you feel personally wronged, it’s hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction. Taking a deep breath and responding with “Tell me more” displays an openness to listening to the other person’s feedback.

Feedback: You take things too personally.

Push-against response: I don’t take things personally.

Aikido response: Tell me more about that.

Asking for additional or clarifying information (“Just to be clear, can you explain?”) conveys strength. Fighting back in a defensive manner makes you look weak.

3. Focus on an outcome you both want. Consider this statement and two ways of responding.

Statement: We’re cutting back on expenses, so you can’t take clients to lunch any more.

Push-against: How am I supposed to do my job? Our competitors take clients to lunch.

Aikido response: You and I both want you to succeed. Let’s talk about what matters most to clients and how we can deliver that.

What is the ultimate outcome you want from the conversation? It’s usually not an argument. Start with an outcome you both want, and use that frame to guide the conversation.

Going with instead of against allows leaders to handle conflict more constructively. Employees feel their input is valued rather than being labeled as wrong. This approach is especially effective with millennials, who want to feel that their perspectives are heard and that they are making a difference. Both leaders and their staff gain respect through this approach. 

Holly Buchanan is the author of Selling Financial Services to Women: What Men Need to Know and Even Women Will Be Surprised to Learn and coauthor of The Soccer Mom Myth—Today’s Female Consumer:  Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys. Her blog addresses Marketing to Women Online.

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