Categorized | Organizations

Managing Conflict in the Workplace with Martial Arts Thinking

There is a way to effectively manage conflict, survive office politics, and keep your sanity; you’ve just got to be willing to turn to a technology that works. A shift of paradigm will be needed, too – from conflict to harmony as the way of the world.

The Japanese martial art of aikido is built upon the idea that the power of harmony can be harnessed for nonviolent conflict resolution, not just the forceful self-defense typically associated with martial arts. Aikido, which literally means the way of harmonizing your energy with that of your opponents, teaches students how to deal with opponents by becoming one with their intent and redirecting their energy. This philosophy minimizes conflict and creates the circumstances for win-win solutions.

What works for individuals can work for organizations, too. Rick Butler, a second-degree black belt in aikido, says the principles of aikido helped him prosper as both a corporate executive and business owner. Butler is founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit Pathway to Harmony, Inc.

“Aikido is about the process of unifying your mind, body and spirit to accomplish your goals,” Butler says. “When all the parts of you are in sync, then you reach a state of calm and harmony that enables you to see clearly, analyze a situation, and do what’s necessary.”

Aikido Basics

When faced with a verbal, psychological, or physical attack, most people will respond with anger and try to retaliate. The stronger combatant may win the battle but lose the war as defeat arouses resentment in the loser. That’s the problem with the law of the jungle: The fighting never ends.

“It’s hard to control our own energy when someone attacks us because we get scared,” says Tim Spies, a third-degree black belt in aikido and owner of Spies and Associates, a civil engineering firm in Arlington Heights, IL. “Our first reaction is one of survival; our minds and bodies freeze up, and in this condition it’s difficult to move.”

In aikido, participants learn first to breathe deeply from the midpoint of the body — a point 1 inch below the navel – to bring the body into balance. This technique, known as centering, calms the mind and relaxes the body to facilitate effective thought and motion during an attack.

“Once you’re centered, chaos doesn’t unsettle you to the degree that you’re so caught up in everything, you can’t think or move,” says Butler. “So, when turmoil occurs in the workplace, having the ability to center yourself enables you to keep your cool in tough situations.”

This idea is evident in the graceful, dance-like whirling movements of aikido, which function to make the practitioner the eye of the hurricane, the calm in the midst of a storm. Centering frees the practitioner from habitual ways of dealing with conflict, leading instead to a sense of sureness and wholeness, of being in tune with oneself and the environment. In this state of mind, awareness of a variety of responses becomes available, and the practitioner can match the response to the situation at hand.

Many aikido techniques involve turning and facing in the same direction as the attacker. This, Spies says, allows the practitioner to blend his or her energy with that of the attacker. “Once we have the energy of the situation under control,” he says, “we can begin to work on discovering what the problem is and finding a solution.”

Among aikido practitioners, the technique of choice for managing conflict is simply to walk away from it. Bob Garza, a fourth-degree black belt in aikido, says he used this technique often as a supervisor at Ameritech in Chicago, IL. “There were one or two guys on my team who were nothing but trouble,” Garza says. “They were always trying to aggravate me.”

Garza says he handled their resistance by stepping away from it. “If you don’t respond, you’re not there, and the energy goes right past you,” says Garza. “The more energy an attacker puts into an attack, the harder he will hit the ground, and he’ll get up with less energy. Eventually he’ll give up and the situation will change.”

Sometimes, walking away isn’t an option. What to do, for example, if your boss reprimands you in front of your peers? “That’s something that messes with your ego,” Butler says, “so the first thing you have to do is relax. Take a breath… and let go of your ego. Show humility and listen. This is because when something like this happens, there’s a grain of truth to part of it, at least. Also, your calm demeanor is a sign of maturity and respect. It indicates that you’re mature enough to accept criticism and shows respect for your superior’s position, if not the person holding it.”

Having established your own composure and defused the potential for immediate conflict, “you might calmly apologize and go on to say that ‘I agree with part of what you said, but not all of it’,” Butler suggests. “You’re showing that you’re able to acknowledge some fault. Now you’re disarming him, because that message isn’t what he expected. He expected for you to get mad. He expected for there to be an argument. When you agree with at least some of what he said, that changes how your adversary sees things. Now, you’re beginning to blend with their energy.”

Going With the Flow

Aikido students learn to blend and flow with the energy of an attack until a solution presents itself. “You don’t get caught up in what’s going on; you experience it,” says Butler. “You’re looking for a feeling. It’s not about going out there and doing this or that. You allow yourself to get a feel for what to do next.”

The Japanese word kokyu describes a state in which the spirit infuses and empowers the physical, mental, and emotional dimensions of life. In this state, aikido practitioners gain access to the intuitive sense we all have that guides us toward the right decisions.

Most of us have experienced this state, which many call “the zone.” In sports, <i>kokyu</I> is what’s at work when a journeyman comes off the bench, does everything right, and leads the team to victory. In post-game interviews, the player actually may seem mystified while saying something like, “I don’t know. I was in the zone tonight. I couldn’t miss.”

In the business world, the equivalent of this state goes by many names: inspired leadership, vision, intuitive decision-making. All express the harmony from which effective function, conflict resolution, and leadership flow.

When managing conflict in the workplace, remember above all that the most important battlefield is within. Controlling one’s own energy is necessary before bringing others’ under control.

“There’s a saying in aikido that every student learns early,” Garza says. “It’s masakatsu agatsu: “True victory is victory over self.”

  • I enjoyed your article on Aikido and Conflict in the Workplace. I’m an Aikido instructor and a corporate trainer who uses Aikido to teach conflict and communication skills in organizations. You might enjoy my book, “Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict” – stories and practices on this very topic. Thanks very much!