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attacker shadowI have a colleague who practices the Japanese martial art aikido, and after many years of practice finally earned his black belt in his late 60’s. He attributes the delay in earning this distinction to the fact that it took him a long time to overcome the habit of wanting to resist his opponent.

He discovered that when you resist your “attacker,” you restrict the energy you have available to fight your opponent.

Life is like that.

When you feel unsafe, you often literally resist what is coming at you.

When you feel threatened, you shut down the normal brain functions that would typically allow you to respond. It’s a primitive response, and in many cases of real threat, it can save your tush.

angry manBut it’s also why you say stupid things when you’re feeling criticized or judged. Or why you withdraw from conversations about things you don’t want to deal with.

The key is to learn to spot the voice-raising finger-pointing totally-withdrawing behaviors in yourself and others when you find yourself having a crucial conversation.

Then you can learn to “blend and redirect” with your attacker, as is taught in aikido. By allowing their movement, rather than defending or charging (which only provokes a stronger attack), you reserve your own energy for a useful response.hands aikido

The hard part, as Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler point out in Crucial Conversations, is separating the content from the conditions of the conversation, so you can watch for the ways that people are feeling and acting while they’re in the midst of the difficult content.

The stress of feeling attacked generally doesn’t prompt you to slow down and examine what’s going on in the person who appears to be jumping down your throat.

Instead, the anxiety sends your body into a responsive state of fight or flight, or freeze, that prevents you from thinking calmly, rationally.

You know the sensations- the blind rage, knotted stomach, sweaty armpits.

Pema Chodron notes in Comfortable with Uncertainty that “we spend all our lives trying to create zones of safety, which are always falling apart”, much as in what happens when we try to resist our attacker with brute force rather than the blend and redirect method of aikido.

You can use simple cues to recognize your brain is about to disengage and create an unsafe condition for conversations.

When you feel the energy in a conversation going awry, look for examples of Silence and Violence (Patterson et al), or unsafe conditions that usually lead to a crucial conversation.

two_women_arguing_at_work-wSilence is the withdrawal behaviors that withhold meaning, like when someone exits a conversation (or the room), or talks without addressing the real issues. You may also recognize it as sarcasm, avoiding the subject or withdrawing completely.

Violence is the name-calling, monologuing or making threats that forces meaning into the shared pool of understanding. It appears in conversations as controlling maneuvers (overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, changing the subject). Or when you feel labeled or attacked.

Neither silence nor violence work as a useful conversation tactic. They’re only designed to resist your opponent, or create a one-up relationship so you (or they) don’t have to deal with the conflict.

Recognize the cues of Silence and Violence in yourself and others to give you a chance to step out of the way.

These cues of Silence and Violence are warning signs that you’re headed into a crucial conversation, and prompt you to quickly get out of the way of your attacker, rather than defending or opposing. Getting out of the way, rather than fighting, creates the chance to have a real conversation that might go somewhere useful.

after the rainThis short-cut to avoiding the stress and trauma of difficult conversations causes an expansion of your energy, rather than a contraction. And when you’re more expanded in mind and body, you can participate in a way that promotes dialogue, rather than dissension.

More to come on handling difficult conversations in the next article.

In the meantime, if you’d like to get started on mastering crucial conversations, contact me for a Free 30-minute Strategy Session to see how you can move forward. Or download the free e-Book Calm Your Body & Mind, Reduce Your Stress: 10 Easy Ways to Counteract Life’s Rollercoaster and find simple ideas to reduce the stress related to difficult conversations.


Holly Woods, Ph.D. helps adults who want to wake-up to a life without limits. She works with people in-person, by skype or phone, using Integral Coaching, Somatic Experiencing, energetic healing, mindfulness and other modalities. She can be reached at 970-331-1639 or