By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

How do you deal with the unexpected confrontation? What do you do when someone’s response is obviously designed to wrest control?

Deciding exactly what to do is the challenge of every leader. That’s why leaders would benefit from what Terry Paulson in They Shoot Managers, Don’t They? calls “Verbal Aikido.” Named after the Japanese Martial art “Aikido,” Verbal Aikido seeks, as does the Aikido martial artist, to counter the attack without bringing harm to the attacker. The key objective of Verbal Aikido is to uphold balance and restore equilibrium to the strained relationship without being killed–or killing the attacker.
Some Basic Principles
In order to practice Verbal Aikido,
  • Don’t aim to kill your opposition.
  • Instead of silencing the party attacking you, listen, absorb, and redirect the attack.
  • Instead of using force, use the attack as a springboard to direct the energy to solve the problem.
  • Honor and recognize the existence of opposition without accepting the severity of the attack.
  • Seek knowledge and information, even if you don’t agree with it or it’s communicated improperly.
  • Don’t use the Aikido attack opportunity to coerce your views, reiterate or position, or to have them seem it your way. Instead, use it to demonstrate your willingness to listen.
  • Do not reinforce his resistance, but do acknowledge it.
  • Let it be known that it’s OK to disagree and honorable for having shared the disagreement in a direct manner.
Verbal Aikido In Action
Terry Paulson gives some examples of Aikido responses. These responses have been adapted for pastors and are listed below.

Attack Aikido Response
“It won’t work” “It may not. I see some problems. What do you see?”
“You’re just like the rest of the pastors and leaders around here!” “I am a pastor and a leader. That’s why I want to hear what you’re saying. What do you see is the problem?
“All you think about is your own self and agenda?” “I am concerned about what happens to the church’s ministry and how it affects members, including you. What kinds of things are bothering you?
“You pastors are all the same!” “In many ways we are alike. But whatever you think about pastors and whatever your past experience with pastors, I want to work with you, not against you. What things are bothering you?
“You aren’t’ fair!” “Sometimes I may not be. Leadership decisions may not always seem fair to individuals, though they are made with the intention to make things better for everyone. In what ways have things not been fair for you?”
General Attack “There may be some truth to that. I don’t have any pretense or illusions of being perfect. I’m interested to hear what you have to say about this issue in greater detail.”

Listening…Aikido Style

When using Verbal Aikido, it’s very important to exercise excellent listening skills with the right motivation.
1) Listen to understand, not to gain tactical advantage.

Don’t be defensive. Relax. Use this opportunity to exude trust and to receive information. If you’re striving to win at the other’s expense, watch out! You’ll probably lose the battle, the war, and their trust.

2) Listen to discover what the speaker really, really means.
Continually check and re-check the meaning of words, the specifics of the issues and, watching for non-verbals, try to discover which issue (or issues) are the most important one.

3) Listen with questions in mind. Ask yourself…

  • What’s the point?
  • Are the points consistent with each other? Why or why not?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is there real evidence to back up the assertions?
  • Is this shared information fact, assumption, or hogwash?
  • Could this be a politically-motivated “facade” of seeking truth to justify future (short or long-term) attacks? What’s his track record?
  • How are my prejudices obscuring the issues presented?
  • Is the issue really the real issue?
  • Is my ego in the way…again?
  • How useful or applicable is this information?

4) Be a good facilitator.

Don’t be a “bore”. According to Ambrose Bierce’s definition, a “bore” is “someone who talks when you want him to listen.” Don’t be a bore. Listen!
5) Begin redirecting toward problem solving.
Nothing is worse than a sharing session which has not been directed toward a problem solving process. Be honest, direct, but courteous in discussing possible ways available to address the issue in a constructive, positive manner.
6) State your own views.
Be honest and forthcoming, but not overbearing. Share your needs, views and perspectives and reasons why you currently are sympathetic to the position you hold.
If middle ground is available, prudent and appropriate, suggest that possibility. If restrictions, rules, or other circumstances preclude the possibilities of middle ground, indicate the restrictions but do so in a patient manner which understands that accepting such non-negotiable items may be difficult but nevertheless necessary.
7) Encourage follow-up.

Thank that attacker for having shared the information and indicate that you would like to discuss this further at another time in the near future.

Perhaps you may follow-up with a very short letter simply acknowledging their concerns and thanking them for sharing with them. Do not go into any details or specifics in the letter. Also indicate in the letter your desire to discuss the issues further. Then follow-up.

Granted, Verbal Aikido can be an excellent communication tool to help transform destructive, antagonistic conflict into constructive, energizing conflict. But doing it does not come easy. After all, listening and thinking quickly on your feet is difficult—especially when invaded by the more intimidating attackers. That is the real test. Listening and being quick on your feet to give an appropriate “Aikido” response.
Spiritual Verbal Aikido
Frankly, sometimes pastors don’t know what to say in a situation. Or, when it becomes evident that a confrontation may take place, pastors can become tongue-tied.
That’s when God provides pastors and other Christians the highest form of Verbal Aikido, “Spiritual Verbal Aikido.” This type of Verbal Aikido defies practice and preparation. It defies fear and timidity. It even defies human wisdom and effort.Without intending to sound simplistic, naive or foolish, Spiritual Verbal Aikido is really the only Verbal Aikido Christians really need. Actually, it’s the only one we have! It is a special gift of God, given by His abounding graciousness, especially for His people for use in those difficult, but necessary, ministry encounteers.

“When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” Matthew 10:19-20 (NIV).

Granted, Spiritual Verbal Aikido can be abused. Some Christian leaders may erroneously assume that everything they say is “divine” as an all-too-obvious veneer for their narcissism. Others may use Jesus’ promise to provide what to say as an excuse for not giving serious and weighted consideration for the necessary confrontations.
Jesus’ promise, however,  is that as one moves forward with unshakable faith in God’s leading and with a firm resolve to communicate in a prayerful, spiritual and constructive manner, one can do so with an uncompromising confidence of God’s presence. God does lead us. He moves us to say what He desires to be said. God’s prompting often comes without one’s even knowing it…until, after the encounter one reflects with amazement on God’s working.
Initially, practicing Verbal Aikido of either the “normal” or “spiritual” kind, may be difficult. But, over time, it can be helpful to reduce the potential for conflict in your church. Moreover, this Aikido approach can, by the grace of God working through you and others in your ministry, help develop a more non-threatening atmosphere in which healthy expression of disagreement can occur.
Enjoy your use of this verbal martial art to help lead your church to more effective conflict management. But remember, no matter how “slick” your Verbal Aikido skills, it is God who is the Lord of all that happens in the church–from communication to conflict management!
Thomas F. Fischer

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