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Aikido As Physical Metaphor For Negotiation

There is plenty of wisdom on how to handle difficult moments in a negotiation. The challenge is: knowing and doing are miles apart. The Japanese martial art Aikido helps to bridge theory and practice.

For my first Aikido session in a negotiation training I committed the basic mistake for which I warn others so often. I made an assumption. I assumed the session was intended as a piece of physical relaxation within an intensive multi-day negotiation training. Take a quiet breath and imitate some of the master's movements. After an hour we would continue afresh with the "real" program.

But Aikido in negotiation training is not a re-energiser, an icebreaker or other workshop technique to bring people closer together. Aikido - the Japanese martial art often translated as the way of harmonious spirit - is the physical metaphor closest to the core of principled negotiation. 

You can learn a lot about negotiation through theory and role play. But applying that knowledge is difficult in real situations you experience as unusual, stressful or even threatening. Especially when the pressure is on, when others are watching, when hostility arises... How to be in control rather than telling yourself that you should be… The question of how to deal with difficult people is the question that many participants are left with during and after negotiation training. I can take on an open constructive style, but what if my counterpart has a completely different view about how to resolve problems? What if the other side is overbearing, stubborn, condescending, acting very positional and hell-bent on a win-lose outcome? What about strong emotions? Or what if my counterpart opens the toolkit of tricks? Entire bookshelves have been written about these situations. The core of that wisdom is often passed on in training.

But the challenge is: understanding what works best and actual practice “at the table” are very far apart. It is the difference between knowledge on the one hand and consciousness and application on the other. The "fight or flight" pattern is deeply rooted in us. In conflict, we let physical and mental triggers have the right of way in determining our response; only afterwards, when the dust has settled and we have left the room, can we determine rationally what we could have done ("oh yes, my book / trainer / mentor / podcast had said so!"). Through a profound physical experience, Aikido acts as a bridge between understanding and doing.

In Aikido, the goal is to enter a physical confrontation (kindly referred to as a "meeting”) in such a way that both parties emerge from it in good shape. My daughter (8), like me, is a student of Aikido. Her teacher summarises the core philosophy in very simple words: "in Aikido you leave the other person whole". In my own two and a half hour session with master Aalt Aalten (indeed, a name that is as balanced as the art he practices) the group physically experiences the difference between actually making genuine contact with someone and a meeting where the intention to connect is not completely there. They experience how taking on a wide perspective "see the other and the world around you" enables you to stand firm, with childish ease, against the pushing of a larger and physically stronger opponent. Aalt’s lesson focuses on how you can circularly move to position yourself next to the other (respond rather than react to pressure). This may sound "soft" to your ears: are you safe?; can you still serve your interests? In Aikido you experience that softness and firmness reinforce one another. You are the least vulnerable if you position yourself shoulder to shoulder with your attacker. Connect and see the world through their perspective before you extend their energy to move them where you like them to be. In these movements, no force is applied for great reason: an exertion of one’s own muscular strength has no utility if the other party is physically stronger. 

It is no different in negotiation. Positional resistance is a trap: the “re-action” instead of the response. You can come to understand that in a good negotiation training; but do you remember it in the unruly and unscripted practice of everyday life? And how do you practice an alternative and invite the other person to go along? Physically experiencing these techniques instead of only rationally applying them in exercises offers a solution.

As first published on Samenwerken in het Publieke Domein (NL)

Further reading: The power of Aikido and other martial arts for negotiation training is no secret to many trainers in the field. Joel Lee (professor of law in Singapore) and James Shanahan (crisis negotiator with the New York police), for example, wrote a great article in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, the voluminous work for negotiating aficionados (Volume 2, p. 355). Both are active as both negotiating and martial arts trainers.


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