My good friend Philip, an Aikido practitioner, wrote this article. I immediately recognized it as a gold mine for resolving relationship conflicts (although this particular story is about a conflict with a neighbor) and and at the same time developing yourself. Our automatic behavior is to re-act to each other which, as I mentioned in The Relationship Saver, throws a wrench into the wheels of our relationship and into a downward spin. Here Philip eloquently explains how to stop reacting and take your relationship into your own hands, the Aikido way.
Self Defense For Verbal Conflict
By Philip Stearns
A couple days ago my friends Radomir and Antoinette were accosted by their next-door neighbor, a young, 20-something woman. Based on the perceived affront of a car parked too close to her driveway, the woman materialized on their front porch, banged on the door and, when Antoinette answered the knock, proceeded to threateningly cuss her out as being an inconsiderate, f-ing bitch before heading back across the drive to her house. Her husband Radomir, upon hearing of the incident, made the trip next door to get to the bottom of the situation. He was met by a similar stream of invective highlighted by the resounding bang of the door slamming in his face.
Having been friends with Antoinette for many years and knowing her to be an extremely polite, respectful, gentle, soft-spoken, reserved English woman, this scene seemed almost amusing in its absurdity. Who could get so worked up with Antoinette? The look on her face, however, revealed how shaken up she was by the episode. Radomir, himself an expert in human interactions and relationships and an author on the topic, was similarly bothered by the extreme nature of the verbal attack. The question immediately arose in the conversation as to how I would have handled the woman had it been me standing in the doorway, nose-to-nose with the raging, abusive shrew. I practice a defensive art called aikido – sometimes referred to as “the art of peace” — that is all about resolving conflict so this real-world episode demanded consideration and raised the question: how do you handle a sudden, intense verbal attack so that everyone can win? After all, the lady was their next-door neighbor. You don’t want to aggravate the relationship. But you want to defuse the situation and, ideally, feel good about it.
Before exploring approaches that can be taken in situations like this, it is useful to understand a couple of facts about human biology and psychology. Understanding them is the key to both keeping your cool under fire and helping your assailant simmer down.
First of all, humans are equipped with an amazing brain, the product of millions of years of evolution. The brain is actually made up of many interactive parts. Some two dozen or so of the oldest parts make up something called the limbic system, a set of brain structures that line the inner border of the cortex. Physiological functions such as sleep cycles, heart rate, blood pressure, hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, formation of long-term memory, fight or flight impulses, among other low level, basic functions, find a home in the limbic system. This is the area of the brain that kept us alive through ancient times of extreme adversity. This is where the impulse to flee from danger is generated and where the reflexive instincts to protect our selves, our children, our food, our shelter and our stuff come from. Survival has always been the name of the game and fight-or-flight was a key to enabling us to see the sun rise another day. Even now, after countless generations, if we perceive we are being attacked or threatened in some way, elaborate hormonal and physiological changes instantly emanate from the limbic system triggering emotional responses like fear or anger. The reflexive instinct towards self-defense rises from the ancient reptilian brain, insisting we flee or fight. Inherent in these reflexive feelings is a sense of vulnerability from external sources of danger.
The next useful-to-understand fact of human nature is that each of us possesses a set of biological ‘switches’ for our emotions. These switches are entirely automatic and they are universal. They are often referred to as the Affect System and they developed alongside the limbic system to aid in our survival in some way. Most of the emotions that are triggered are thought of as being ‘negative’, such as fear, anger, shame, distress, disgust, etc. A few are ‘positive’, like interest, excitement and joy. For our purposes here, it is only important to understand that:
1. These emotional switches exist and they are fundamental to who we are. We all have them.
2. Only a single switch/emotion can be activated at-a-time. An analogy would be those old-fashioned car radios with ‘radio buttons’; when one is pushed, the others pop out. So, for example, we don’t experience fear and joy simultaneously, or anger and interest. If you are feeling joyful and something suddenly frightens you, joy will give way to fear, and visa-versa.
3. The third fact that is particularly relevant to our experience in a situation that we perceive as being threatening is a phenomenon often referred to as “affect resonance”. In a nutshell, people tend to automatically share emotions to one degree or another. If a person is upset in our presence, we tend to feel upset. We resonate emotionally. The presence of an excited person tends to make us feel excited, too. Joy begets joy, anger begets anger, and so on. This is most readily observed in children. Newborns in a hospital nursery, for example, can easily be seen sharing ‘distress’. One hungry baby starts crying and all the babies join in, hungry or not. Fortunately, as we grow up we gradually learn to modulate these emotional reactions. Without the learned ability to get a handle on this phenomenon of Affect Resonance every upset person would trigger upset in all of those around him. Every tear would generate a torrent of tears. So, as we mature, we learn to modulate the impulse to spontaneously share the emotions of those around us. Nonetheless, we still feel the basic impulses when exposed to another person’s emotional state.
Right! Now we have an understanding of these basic facts of human nature. How might this serve us when faced with an enraged, screaming, threatening neighbor who has appeared on the doorstep intent upon venting her rage and making you feel as bad as humanly possible? Let’s take a look…
First of all, the most natural experience for most people is for your body and mind to become highly reactive as affect resonance kicks in. The woman is loud, angry and threatening. You may well quickly feel hot, shaky, perhaps fearful or angry. Maybe you will feel guilty or ashamed if your car really was blocking the neighbor’s driveway. Or, you might be disgusted by the bizarre display. Whatever the initial feelings, they will almost certainly be negative. The intensity of the assault will be a shock to your system. The first step toward taking advantage of the situation is clearly to get a grip on you. You can feel yourself losing it. What to do??
Remember that whatever affects (switches) are being thrown and whatever emotion you are experiencing can be counteracted by consciously throwing a different switch. The trick is to control your mind. It might be useful to see the woman on the porch as being a salesperson who is selling you something you really don’t want to buy. After all, why would you want to buy a body full of raging peptides and a head full of distress? Or, in the words of Tom Waits, “a head full of lightning and a hat full of rain.” So, the first order of business is to CHOOSE to move your attention consciously to some place other than the woman’s face which is the primary projector of her rage. My favorite location in this situation is the bottom of my feet. Put your attention on the soles of your feet and become aware of the feeling of pressure coming from the contact with the floor. Think about the feeling, visualize your feet and the way they greet the floor. Are you wearing shoes? How do they look? Raise your big toes and see how the sensations in your feet change. Put them down again. Take a deep breath and imagine the air is traveling all the way down to your feet. Put your attention in your feet. Breath into them.
What this exercise is doing is capturing your attention and triggering the “interest” switch. You are switching off the negative emotions and turning on interest. You are calming down and giving yourself a break from being buffeted by your own biology. Now, maintaining your awareness of the bottom of your feet, move your attention to the woman’s body. Notice that you can now do that without feeling reactive. Investigate all the ways she has become rigid, unbalanced and unsteady. Allow yourself to be absorbed in this investigation. Then take another breath and extend compassion towards this troubled woman. Feel a connection form. Reach out to her in your mind. You now have something that she dearly needs. You have calm, empathy and compassion.
This is where the magic begins. Notice that one of two things is going to happen. Either the woman is going to break away and leave because she feels her mood slipping away and she is invested in holding onto the intensely negative feelings… or…. she is going to calm down. She is looking for resistance and you are giving her none. The ability to maintain her rage depends on your resistance. She needs someone to push on to maintain her rage. When you take the resistance away, so goes the ugly mood.
Affect resonance goes both ways. Just as your emotions are triggered by your neighbor’s intense anger, so will her mood be affected by YOUR emotional state. THIS is your power. This is your road out of a sense of vulnerability and into a sense of peace and empowerment.
So, the name of the game is not to react to your neighbor… but to control you. When you trap your own attention and become interested or even – with practice — joyful in the presence of your neighbor, she is going to feel her own mood alter in accordance to the laws of her own physiological makeup. It’s just a fantastic and fortunate fact of human biology. Your neighbor’s ability to maintain her raging emotional state is undermined by your own positive presence. She cannot feel your interest, compassion, or your love without resonating to it and without having her negative emotions switched off. By controlling yourself you are switching off your neighbor’s anger switch. You have the power. And it’s a win-win. Once calm, you can work out the details of your differences.
The problem in human conflict is never the person attacking you. The only issue is how you feel about it. That feeling becomes a choice when you understand how your feelings operate. And, once you have experienced the reality that what you choose to feel either supports or dissolves your attacker’s negative intentions, it becomes difficult not to ask the question, “who is really responsible for this situation?”