Verbal Aikido


The law of Probability Dispersal decrees that whatever it is that hits the fan will not be evenly distributed. — Unknown

In aikido, when someone is dead set on an attack, an interesting response is to “take someone’s balance.”  On the mat this means you literally go to where their body is not and shift your attacker's balance by taking advantage of their rigidity. For instance, if attacked hard from the right, you step in close to their left and with a small movement create an imbalance in their focus and thus force them to change approach. By not engaging directly in the attack, but sidestepping it, you turn the assault from rigid to fluid.

In a human interaction you can use the same approach to take someone’s balance by carefully noting the tone and intention of the communication. 

Have you ever been in the following situation? In a meeting someone raises his or her hand to ask a question. After calling on them out pops the following, “Why don’t we seem to care more about our staff?” The question leaves you in a defensive position, a bit flabbergasted and unsettled. 

“Why of course I care” you start. But the look on your face shows a little shock and discomfort that’s translated into lack of surety. The asker is subtly smirking, drawing a line in the sand and silently demanding an instant response. The old saying, “Never let ‘em see you sweat” isn’t working. You have lost.


Because you were “attacked” in a manner that prevented any real possibility of response or resolution. The goal was not to discuss or resolve the issue. Instead the goal was to try and surprise you and create a position of power and one-ups-manship. Sometimes this is conscious. Often times not. But the results are always the same. The strategy worked because the query did not allow for any positive movement or resolution. There was no room to reach common ground. You become essentially “pinned” by a demand. Held fast by an indirect statement embedded in a question.

Interestingly the opposite scenario is also possible. Sometimes we can become pinned just by an irresolvable statement alone. For instance, your boss out of the blue and staring in your general direction says, “Our customer service was very disappointing this month!” 

What can you say, “No it wasn’t!” Not likely. Shift into therapist mode with “You sound upset.” Only if you are not particularly interested in keeping your job. Again you have been pinned and for the same reason; handed an impossible point with a delivery manner that did not allow for movement or resolution. 

In both cases, however, you have an option— “taking someone’s balance.” This strategy works effectively because the positions held are rigid and inflexible and not in spite of it. Taking someone’s balance means we step out of the way of the attack and effortlessly respond with the opposite posture. Like on the mat, we do not engage in their rigidity but seek a position that is 180 degrees from their delivery method.

This means if asked an irresolvable question reverse the query by asking for the statement. If you are the target of an aggressive statement, flip instead to a question.

In the first case, if challenged by a question, reversing it with a request for a statement helps to get at the hidden position in the query. Feeling “stuck” is often as a result of knowing there is a strong unacknowledged point of view. But because it’s unacknowledged it’s impossible to respond to and thus create movement. When unspoken this strong opinion basically can leaves one shadow boxing, trying to dance and weave from an unknown assault. 

The response is simple. Calmly say, “It sounds like you have a point of view. I can respond more effectively if I hear your statement. What is it?” Consider the above example about supporting line workers. You might hear, for instance, “Well, I believe we don’t value our staff. In fact I don’t feel particularly valued.” This is now an opening that you can react to for further dialogue and possible resolution. The door has been opened for a more honest and forthright interaction.

In the opposite situation, when attacked by a statement try instead reversing it with a question.

Consider the boss’ challenge about customer service. The simple oppositional response is to say, “Robin. I can understand you are upset about service. I really want to take action but I don’t know what to do with your comment. Can you ask me a question I can respond to instead?” is very helpful. What you have done is to shift your boss away from a rigid positional stance into a potential dialogue. She might respond by saying, “What I’d like to know is what can we do to improve order fulfillment times?” Now you have something to work with and a discussion has just been entered rather than a one-sided and closed encounter.

A fine-point to using both techniques is to notice how in both situations you made a subtle request for what you wanted. In the first scenario, it was “It sounds like you have a point of view. I can respond more effectively if I hear your statement. What is it?” In the second, you directly say “Can you ask me a question I can respond to instead?” But note, both times you made sure you asked for what you wanted.

The time to use “taking someone’s balance” is when you are feeling stuck in a tough situation. Your instincts will tell you when to apply these techniques. Just remember, the next time you are feeling challenged but not sure why it is likely you are facing an irresolvable attack. It is irresolvable because its nature does not allow for forward movement or resolution. This feeling of being pinned is a consequence of literally no wiggle room. When this happens try using “taking someone’s balance”. Just take the energy being given and do the opposite.

Try this: When you feel yourself pinned in a conversation, see if you can step away from the interaction. If pinned by a question, seek the statement in the moment. If held by a statement, go for the question.