The Secret to Resolving Conflicts

by Joseph Kwon in


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OUCH! That looks like it hurts. In fact, from experience I know it hurts. Imagine your body arched backwards as you stare at the ceiling. Feel the stretch as your right arm is raised and your hand reaches for your back as if you're trying to scratch an itch. The only difference is, someone is gripping your hand with both of theirs and is swinging downward like an ax, which sends you crashing to the ground. The reason this hurts, even before you hit the floor, is because most of the force is focused on your wrist and elbow, putting a tremendous amount of pressure and torque on those joints.

Usually my instructor Vardi Sensei shows how to perform the technique, but right now he is showing how to receive the technique. In Aikido part of the training is called Ukemi, which means learning how to fall safely. It's not exactly the same, but think about how a boxer rolls away from a punch or how a hockey player stays calm and loose while getting slammed into the boards.   

As Sensei is being twisted into a pretzel, he says something that catches my attention. I'm paraphrasing here...

When receiving the technique you allow it to happen. It doesn't mean you give up. Or let yourself get hurt. You stay with the technique and follow it in a relaxed manner. You relax at various points as you feel the pressure - relax your wrist, your arm, your shoulder and finally your hips. This gives you more options and makes it less likely you will get hurt.

When you are on the receiving end of an Aikido technique, becoming rigid and stiffening up does not end well. It's much better and safer to relax and go with the movement. Something about what Sensei says unlocks my understanding of how this same principle applies when someone is verbally attacking you - let's call it Relationship Ukemi.

You don't give up

How many times when a conversation gets heated do we just exit Stage Left and drop the conversation? Or in the alternative, we mentally check out by ignoring the person. A final version of giving up is acquiescing to what is being said. The problem with these approaches is they don't resolve anything and both of you still carry around the negativity of the interaction. It's admittedly difficult, but staying engaged, even though your brain is yelling "EJECT! EJECT!" is a necessary step to resolving any conflict.

You don't let yourself get hurt

This idea can be challenging to understand and accept. If you're not fighting back, how can you not let yourself get hurt? It seems like a paradox. Or maybe a wish or fantasy.

We are more likely to get hurt when our focus is purely on ourselves - how I am feeling and how the other person is treating me. When we keep under control (admittedly hard to do in a heated conversation) and try to follow what the other person is saying, our focus shifts to how they are feeling and why they might be acting the way they are. By staying relaxed and thinking about things from the other person's perspective, we can protect ourselves from being hurt.  

You stay with it and follow it in a relaxed manner

Insults and hurtful words are a package deal. It's rare in an argument to have only one attack. It's more often a combination in pursuit of a knockout. So you should anticipate that after the first attack, there will be plenty more.

You're always so x!

Remember the time you did y?

You broke your promise so how can you expect me to ever trust you again!

The key is to understand the need to stay cool while enduring multiple assaults. Keep your focus on the others perspective. Again, not easy to do so why bother? Which leads us to the key.

This gives you more options and makes it less likely you will get hurt

So I know what you are probably thinking.

"Joe, I'm not sure how behaving like a punching bag is supposed to make it less likely for me to get hurt or give me more options."

Great question. Allow me to explain.

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In terms of making it less likely for you to get hurt the focus here is on giving you a better chance of resolving the conflict with the other person and leaving with a better relationship. If you fight or flee, it may feel like you are winning or protecting yourself, but in a very real way you are losing. Think about it. Do you really end up in a good place after destroying someone in an argument? When you avoid the issue and refuse to engage, are you content? Do either of these approaches bring you peace, satisfaction, or a sense of personal growth? 

Imagine Life A, where you viciously fight or permanently write off anyone who attacks or offends you. My guess is that this will end up being a very embattled and lonely life.

Now imagine Life B, where you run away from conflict or let people get away with hurting you. My guess is this will end up being a very fearful and painful life. Life A and Life B are both ways of responding, but neither do much to actually RESOLVE life's inevitable conflicts.

We are looking for Life C, where you successfully deal with conflicts.

"So Joe, I'm still not seeing the part where you are resolving the conflict. This still feels like you're a punching bag, but congratulations on being an empathetic punching bag!"

I get your point of view. If you stick with me just a few more moments, I'll explain how this all comes together.

If someone attacks me and my response is to get tense and fight back, this doesn't end well. Getting tense and angry puts the lizard brain in control, which narrows my focus, eliminates my ability to understand nuance, and makes me want to hurt the other person in a fight for survival. And if I flee or give up, my lizard brain helps me run faster and I still haven't resolved anything.

If instead I stay engaged while protecting myself and staying relaxed during the attack, this allows my Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) to stay in control. The PFC is responsible for executive function in the brain, which among other things relates to the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, make nuanced judgments, consider future consequences, predict outcomes and suppress urges. This approach allows me to learn more about what it going on without going all Cobra Kai on the other person.

Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.

This is incredibly difficult to do, especially when it isn't someone you have tremendous love and compassion for. Strike that. This is incredibly difficult to do EVEN WHEN it is someone you have tremendous love and compassion for.

What options does this give you? You can listen. You can lend support. You can validate the way they are feeling. The goal is to understand what is causing them to lash out so you can help resolve the conflict. Ultimately, you are in control and if you feel you are in danger or too many lines have been crossed, you can DECIDE to eject or fight back. You always have the option to change course, including the nuclear option, but in this scenario you are making a calm, informed choice instead of a knee-jerk reaction which you may later regret.

Let's take a look at an example of not using Relationship Ukemi and instead battling to the death - Thunderdome style.

Two man enter, one man leaves.

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Husband (excitedly bursting into the house): You'll NEVER believe what happened at work!

Wife: Hold on a second. Did you take out the garbage last night like I asked you to?

Husband: I don't remember, but that's not important (to ME). Like I said, you'll never...

Wife: Actually, it's important to ME and even though you don't seem to care I'll tell you anyway. The answer is "no." You forgot, again. I came downstairs this morning and the house reeked.

Husband: Are we seriously going to have this trivial conversation again...right now? I have some important news and now I'm not even sure I want to tell you!

Wife: Well I'm not sure I really care to hear your "important news" if you're going to have that attitude. And by the way, did you fix the guest room toilet like you promised you would this weekend?

Husband: What is this, an inquisition? Yeah, I get it, I'm a bad husband. Look at me, the bad husband with the suffering wife. How about cutting ME some slack once in a while and showing some appreciation for all I do to support this family.

Wife: I'd be happy with a husband who just took out the trash when he was asked to and followed through on fixing things.

Husband: Forget this! I'm outta here. I'll talk to you later when you are being a little more reasonable. (Door slams as he leaves!)

 Wife: (to herself) I'm not going to let this one slide! 

See any winners here? 

By the way...just to be crystal clear, this is in no way based on or inspired by my wife...or life! 

The example of a married couple is an emotionally charged one and can evoke a lot of preconceptions and baggage. This can make it difficult to clearly see the concept of Relationship Ukemi. So allow me to share a different scenario to illustrate Relationship Ukemi in action.

Picture a small child - your own or one that you care about dearly.

Something happens and they become incredibly upset. In fact, so upset that they physically launch themselves at you. Their tiny little fists are spinning like a windmill. You shift backwards slightly so you don't get hit in the face or otherwise injured. Now they are screaming at you, doing their best to draw blood.

I hate you!

It's all your fault!

You're a liar!

I wish you weren't my [insert relationship]!

The words sting like acid, but because you understand this is in the heat of the moment and your focus is squarely on figuring out what is causing such a severe reaction, you don't take it personally or take the bait.

You can't really back up any further and their attack is less fierce at this point, so you move in to gently restrain them with a hug. They continue to struggle, maybe throw out a few more barbs, but they are losing steam. You continue to hold them and comfort them with words like, "I'm sorry," "I'm here," "I see you're upset," or "How can I help?" You hold them tenderly as they cry and go limp in your arms, as their anger drains and is gradually replaced by sadness. Maybe they quietly sob or blubber through the tears. When the time is right and they are feeling up to it, you talk about what happened and how together you can make things better.

This is Relationship Ukemi.

By not striking back or jumping ship, you have the best chance to make things better.

First, you protect yourself physically and emotionally. Remember, if you let yourself get hurt, your lizard brain takes over and it is survival time and there is no "we" anymore. Regardless of your initial intentions, once someone's words cut you too deeply, you will not want to help them.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

~Mike Tyson

All you will want to do is hurt them back, which doesn't usually make a lot of sense because a) no one is trying to actually kill you and b) this is a person you either care about or at the least, will have to deal with in the future.

Second, you listen and try to understand what is going on. Thankfully, your Prefrontal Cortex is still in control and helping you understand and reason.

Finally, YOU decide the best course of action, based on your deeper understanding of what has happened and what the options are going forward.

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How will Relationship Ukemi make me feel?

Will you get to feel the searing fire of righteous anger? No.
Will you have the instant satisfaction of hurting someone back? Nope.
Will it seem as natural as fight or flight? Not a chance!

How will Relationship Ukemi work for me?

Is it easy? No.
Is it foolproof? Nope.
Is it mandatory? Absolutely not!

Relationship Ukemi is a CHOICE. It is a choice to take a less painful, less destructive path. A more compassionate path. A path to understanding and healing.

Think about someone you know who is able to deal with difficult relationships and situations with grace and poise. Think about someone whose participation always seems to make things better. My suspicion is this person, whether they realize it or not, has mastered Relationship Ukemi. The next time this person is in a tense situation, watch how they act and don't act. Watch how this affects the attacker. See what you can learn from them.

If you take away only one thing from this article, I hope it is this - People who have a knack for successfully navigating conflict were not born with a superpower.

We all have the ability to choose this path, to hone this skill, and to change our relationships.

The key is practicing Relationship Ukemi. I'm still working on it and will be for the foreseeable future.

Hope you give it a try and that it improves your results.

If you have any questions or comments or have a story of your own, I'd love to hear from you.

P.S. In case you were wondering, here is an example of the technique that inspired this post (Shihonage) in action...

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.