Do you wake up brimming with energy and positivity, but as the day progresses, criticism and sarcasm from those around you end up leaving you in a state of discomfort and frustration? Do you often respond thoughtlessly to verbal attacks and end up saying or doing things you later regret? Or maybe you blame yourself because you weren’t able to answer at all? You are not the only one.
Offenses, destructive criticism, teasing, humiliation, insults or irony are often perceived as a personal attack and we react by becoming defensive. We let our emotional brain take over, so we react aggressively when anger floods us or we get blocked when we’re afraid or stupefied.
However, in this way we cede control to the person attacking us. Every time we react impulsively we are working in favor of those who humiliate, criticize or insult us, going against our interest. To prevent those words from breaking our mental balance and dragging us down, we can apply verbal aikido.
Understanding the principles of aikido, essential to change our perspective
Aikidō, which can be translated as the “path of union with energy”, is a martial art from Japan, initially developed by Morihei Ueshiba, also known as Ō-sensei or “great master”.
Ueshiba was a weak and sickly little boy, so his father encouraged him to practice physical activity. In his childhood, he became interested in martial arts very soon, after witnessing the death of his father as a result of a beating he received for his social activism. That traumatic episode led the young Ueshiba to undertake a path of personal search towards perfection in martial arts.
However, instead of holding a grudge and seeking revenge, Ueshiba developed aikido, a practice in which one does not try to defeat the enemy but only to neutralize it because it does not promote violence or aggressiveness. Therefore, the objective of aikido is not the humiliation or defeat of the other, but to find the communion of the body with the mind, which is why it is a path that leads to victory over oneself, over one’s own impulses.
The foundation of aikido, as an art of self-defense, is the development of self-control, through which we manage to harmonize with the opponent, regardless of his physical strength. Therefore, it uses control techniques, immobilizations and projections, but without offering resistance. Its movements are fluid and circular because they take advantage of the opponent’s strength, giving him back his dynamic inertia. It responds to the attack by unbalancing the adversary to neutralize it, but without causing serious injuries.
These aikido principles can be used to develop a verbal “self-defense” tactic that allows us to deal with criticism, recrimination, or sarcasm without losing our balance.
The 3 keys of verbal aikido to respond to personal attacks
Some people go through the world like “garbage trucks”, looking for a place to dump all their negative emotions. They spit their rage, frustration, envy, pessimism, and anger onto others. When we react to a verbal attack by being carried away by aggression or frustration, we lose self-control and our inner peace vanishes.
Insults, humiliation or irony can trigger all kinds of emotions and cause us to react inappropriately or completely disproportionately. As a result, it’s not uncommon to later be flooded with regret: “I wish I had said that!” or “I should have shut up!”
To avoid these situations we need to train and develop our emotional reflexes. Verbal aikido will help us to face this type of situation in a more assertive way, preserving serenity, so that we can better deal with an overly critical boss as well as with an envious work colleague or a friend who always has some recrimination for us.
Verbal aikido teaches us to remain calm in order to manage the situation more effectively. To do this we must take three steps:
1. Kamae: preserve balance
In aikido it is essential to keep the body’s center of gravity stable in order to execute the techniques and be able to effectively face the attacker. In fact, it starts from the posture known as kamae, which facilitates movements without affecting body stability. The same thing happens in verbal aikido: you have to preserve your mental balance.
The goal is to connect with our feelings and thoughts, observe our reactions, and accept what is happening. So we can deal with any type of verbal attack with an “inner smile“; that is, with confidence in ourselves, so that hurtful or malicious words do not undermine our security and our serenity.
2. Zanshin: orient ourselves in the direction of the other
In aikido, one must maintain total attention towards the opponent and the environment, a concept known as zanshin. A correct zanshin allows you to stay alert but relaxed, without losing the connection with the opponent to anticipate his movements.
In aikido, in order to use the attacker’s force, it is essential to turn in his direction. In verbal aikido that means putting yourself in his place; that is, look in the same direction to understand his point of view. We must do it from sincerity, curiosity and neutrality. That is the key to generating the kuzushi or imbalance that will help us neutralize criticism, insults or sarcasm.
3. Musubi: seeking a new balance
The word musubi can be translated as “interaction in harmony” or “union in harmony” and in aikido it expresses the ability to “join” with the energy and movement of the opponent, both physically and mentally.
Since aikido is not intended to humiliate or defeat the other, it is important to try to rebalance the discussion or encourage a more constructive exchange, whenever possible. It is even likely that we will make that person see reason, reach a compromise acceptable to both parties or find a solution to the problem or conflict.
We must bear in mind that the main objective of verbal aikido is to help us maintain serenity and focus on solving the problem, instead of aggravating it. Therefore, the first thing we must do is contain the automatic reaction and use the force of the attack to turn the situation around.
To achieve this we need to look in the same direction as whoever is attacking us. So we can see the situation from his perspective and use his logic to disarm him. However, we can only achieve this if instead of focusing on reacting, we focus on listening and getting the underlying message, to try to understand that person’s point of view.
For example, if we have to deal with a work colleague who has shown some animosity towards us and has reproached us for something in a bad way, once we have taken a deep breath and calm down [kamae], we can say: “I understand that you are upset, it’s hard to deal with so much pressure [zanshin], but since we’ll have to keep working together, I’d like to find a more assertive way to relate to each other” [musubi].
If we have to face a criticism from a superior made in an inappropriate tone, once we have calmed down [kamae], we can respond: “I understand that I have made a mistake and that you are angry [zanshin], but that does not give you the right to treat me like this, I would like it not to happen again” [musubi].
In summary, it is about not making the situation worse by reacting aggressively, but at the same time defending our rights, without attacking the other, but putting ourselves in his place and advocating for dialogue. This strategy is not a surrender but a personal achievement because it implies that we have managed to master our emotions by keeping the situation under control, preventing the anger, frustration or pessimism of others from invading us.
We must remember that in aikido there are no winners or losers. The sole purpose is to redirect the force of aggression to achieve a positive and balanced result. We won’t always be able to resolve the disagreement, but at least we will prevent it from harming us.