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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 24: Adopt Aikido Tactics

By Karen S. Walch

Conflict is considered to be immutable and inevitable in classic notions of power.  The word conflict has historically been most frequently equated with “contest.” Therefore, without the discipline of an egoistic, competitive, “winner-take-all” orientation, it has been believed that those without power are negotiation losers in a struggle for the world’s limited resources, opportunities, time or capital.  Classic tactics used to annihilate others have been perpetuated for centuries, and are designed to mercilessly beat negotiation opponents in the battle of wills and an absolute win-lose contest.  This week’s law will explore some alternative views about the principles and tactics used to share limited resources which are more frequently used today by negotiators in the contemporary global environment. I will draw on martial arts principles, in general, and Aikido practices in particular, to provide some insight about the ways contemporary negotiators think about conflict and their counterparts.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that focuses on allowing practitioners to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury. Aikido (literal translation is “way of blending energy”) is performed by matching with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head on. This requires very little physical energy, as the practitioner leads the attacker’s momentum using turning movements. In the grappling arts, this involves various throws or joint locks.

The key principle in using these tactics is to align to the rhythm and intent of the attacker in order to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter technique.

Many Aikido negotiators interpret these physical tactics as a metaphor for powerful techniques and counter tactics when being controlled or attacked in a negotiation situation. Aikido tactics illustrate examples of ways negotiators in conflict situations do not assume that the goal is to destroy one’s counterpart or to use tactics that incite more struggle and strain for the negotiators.

Some of the Aikido tenets about strength, power, relaxation and relationships serve as the foundation of negotiation tactics that can be directly applied if a negotiation process becomes destructive.

In previous laws, we have addressed the ways in which egoism and related manipulation tactics can be difficult to counter if your preferred negotiation strategy is a problem solving one.

This week we will continue our work on how to identify tactics that are designed to destroy your psychological and strategic fortitude. When manipulator negotiators attack your psychological vulnerabilities and are ruthless enough to potentially harm your interests, it is necessary to protect yourself from such tactics.

In Law 23, we identified the characteristics of a narcissistic negotiator whom you may decide you will not negotiate with. However, in most cases, you may be negotiating not with a pathological narcissist, but someone who has simply habitually thought of negotiation in an egoistic way.

This kind of negotiator can be led to solve problems if you can redirect their destructive energy toward a more productive interaction.

Janet, who works in a male dominated industry, noted recently that she was surprised how well some Aikido practices worked in a difficult negotiation she experienced. As an employer of a small company, her employees wanted to negotiate, among other things, more flex time.

Her first reaction was to be firm and take a strong position against this suggestion. She wanted to have critical control over the projects and contracts she was responsible for. Her first reaction was that she thought her employees required more, not less discipline in tough economic times.

She wanted to maintain a visible level of strength in her company and did not want to appear soft. She felt she would be taken advantage of because she thought employees would take more leisure time for themselves. Therefore, she remained firm. As a result, her team became more oppositional.

As she prepared for a showdown with her employees, she remembered some of the Aikido and self-defense principles discussed in negotiation classes.

It was difficult for her, but she was able to shift her thinking about this situation as a contest but more of an opportunity. She began to appreciate the obvious differences between her and her employees. She remembered that resolving a conflict begins first with an acknowledgment and appreciation of these natural differences.

As she “unhitched” her belief system that she needed to appear right, she did not feel as burdened by the negotiation.

The first principle she remembered from Aikido was to honor and acknowledge the conflict she faced not as a contest between winners and losers, but a natural part of life. By choosing to regain some emotional balance and feel more positive about her relationship with her employees, she was able to think with more clarity.

Janet became more willing to change the discourse, have a sense of discovery, and enjoyment in learning more about her employees and their needs. She was able to appreciate their situation and understood the emotional force of their point of view.

Her flexibility allowed her to move from her point of view toward a willingness to lead a problem solving negotiation with them. They all agreed that the value and commitment to the company required credible accountability and contributions toward project goals.

The team was finally able to design a percentage of the time working on projects away from the office. Not only did her team become more productive, but her satisfaction and enthusiasm about the team transformed from a burden to an enjoyment.

Law 24 exercises

Here is a physical exercise which serves as a metaphor for how to blend your energy with some one who controls or potentially attacks you; how you can be aware of the rhythm and timing to apply a counter technique, and how to change the direction without inflicting harm on another.

1. Have another person stand behind you and put their hands on the back of your shoulders.

2. Have the other person start to control and push you forward so that you must start walking.

3. As you start walking, have them continue to increase the pressure to move you ahead.

4. After several steps, spin to one side, in the same speed or rhythm of the pusher, rolling along the pusher’s arm, maintaining contact, so that you end up in back, now leading the direction of where you both walk.

5. Observe that as soon as you are willing not to push against the controller but change the direction, you find yourself in a new powerful position.

Extra Credit

For more examples of Aikido exercises for negotiation, see The Magic of Conflict: Turning a Life of Work into a Work of Art by Thomas F. Crum (Touchstone, 1998). In addition, you may want to read  How Did That Happen? Holding People Accountable by Roger Connors and Tom Smith (Portfolio Hardcover, 2009).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.

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