Self Defense For Verbal Conflict

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.

Enjoy.
Radomir

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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?”

http://www.RelationshipSaver.org/

http://www.GamelessRelationship.com/

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Comments (6)

Diana

September 9th, 2010 at 7:16 PM    


Nice arti­cle, Phillip! You make some really good points–it makes me want to try Aikido! Yes, becom­ing curi­ous with someone’s expe­ri­ence is a great way to find com­pas­sion and avoid becom­ing emo­tion­ally invested, as well as avoid tak­ing what they are say­ing personally.

holly

September 10th, 2010 at 12:36 AM    


What a fan­tas­tic arti­cle! Every­one has expe­ri­enced this sort of attack in thier lives, and often from those clos­est to you. I am look­ing foward to try­ing this next time I am in a pickle. Thank you for sharing…

Daisy

September 10th, 2010 at 12:02 PM    


A cou­ple of months ago I had a sit­u­a­tion with a neigh­bor. I had com­plained about his loud music before. This night I knocked on the wall. Min­utes later he knocked on my door all in a rage. I kept cool in front of his showy aggres­sive man­ner­isms. He did not get matched energy from me. He asked what my prob­lem was. I calmly said that the prob­lem I had was that the music play­ing late into the night did not allow me to sleep. He con­tin­ued on with his man­ner­ism and even­tu­ally he went into his unit. I haven’t heard him play music at night any­more :)

Gordon Rowland

September 11th, 2010 at 4:24 AM    


A con­vinc­ing, beau­ti­fully pre­sented case for resolv­ing con­flict by depriv­ing an angry oppo­nent of the oxy­gen needed to main­tain their rage.

jg

September 13th, 2010 at 1:31 AM    


Inter­est­ing arti­cle, and I will def­i­nitely try out this tech­nique, because I find the emo­tional noise of our soci­ety very dif­fi­cult to deal with. But I was puz­zled by one state­ment — that we can only feel one emo­tion at a time (e.g. anger and job can’t coex­is­tence). But this is not my expe­ri­ence — I almost invari­ably feel more than one emo­tion at a time. Cer­tainly, when one is really extreme it can over­ride the other(s), but that hap­pens very seldom.

Is Gor­don over-simplifying? Or per­haps draw­ing unwar­ranted con­clu­sions? Or am I just weird :-)

Philip Stearns

September 15th, 2010 at 8:32 AM    


Hi jg. You’re quite right. It is prob­a­bly when we are under duress, as in this sit­u­a­tion with the neigh­bor, that the switch­ing occurs most quickly. Switch­ing that affect off again can also be very fast, although it may seem slower than the onset of our ‘freak out’ because our bod­ies have to clear the chem­i­cals that are released under stress and our res­pi­ra­tion and heart rate, etc., need time to sim­mer down. But the switch is thrown as soon as inter­est or any other pos­i­tive switch is thrown. Equally true, how­ever, is that we can grad­u­ally tran­si­tion from one state to another based on milder, lower inten­sity sit­u­a­tions. Our emo­tions can be like cur­rents mix­ing and flow­ing at that level, tran­si­tion­ing, over­lap­ping, blend­ing. Our inter­est in some­thing can grow grad­u­ally, dis­tress can grad­u­ally grow as we get hun­gry, and so on. At least that’s how it seems to me.

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