Invite Others to Play Your Game

Part 9: Come, let us reason together.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

Luke Archer designed Verbal Aikido to help practitioners defend against verbal attacks. It can also be used to make our conversations and arguments more productive, even when we aren't technically being attacked.

Verbal Aikido has three main steps (drawn from the philosophy of martial Aikido):

  1. Receive the attack with an "Inner Smile".
  2. Accompany the attack to a point of destabilization.
  3. Rebalance the attacker.

An example will help us unpack this a bit. In his interview with Peter Limburgh on the "Intellectual Explorers" podcast, Luke invited Peter to attack him verbally. Peter played along, and the following dialogue ensued:

Peter: "So, I don't really like this Verbal Aikido thing that you're doing."
Luke: "What do you like?"
Peter: "I like having genuine conversations. I don't like all this intellectualizing of conversations. It just doesn't seem right."
Luke: "Genuine. I like that idea. For you, what is a genuine conversation?"
Peter: "You know, when you just go with the flow. When you're just authentic. When you're real with the person. And this thing that you designed, it just seems very sociopathic and manipulative. I just don't like it."
Luke: "What sort of stuff would you prefer? What sort of system would make sense for you?"
Peter: [laughs]
Luke: "How about we just sit down, the two of us, and just sort of brainstorm some stuff and just see what we can come up with. I guarantee we're going to find something that would interest people. What do you think?"
Peter: "Yeah, sounds good. Tapping out! Tapping out!"

It bears repeating that this was a training exercise. Peter doesn't actually think Verbal Aikido is "sociopathic and manipulative". He was just playing his role here. But the exercise illustrates the power we have to counter negative energy.  When Peter announced that he was "tapping out", it was a sign that his negative energy had run out of steam, and he found it difficult to continue the attack. And that's one of the goals of Verbal Aikido.

Let's take a closer look at each of the three steps, with this example in mind.

Step One: Receive the attack with an "inner smile".

Archer considers this the most important step. In fact, sometimes it might be all we need to turn an attack into a productive conversation.

The "inner smile" is about being centered. A little more concretely, it's about restoring balance after being put off balance by an attack. It's about realizing that we are OK with who we are, and we don't actually need to convince anyone of anything. And it's about realizing that the other person's negative energy is more about them than it is about us (especially when the attack isn't fully deserved).

This step is easy if the attack has no basis in fact. If someone criticizes your orange eyes, when your eyes are clearly not orange, the inner smile comes naturally (this is an example Archer frequently uses). But sometimes attacks do have some basis in fact. And sometimes they hit one of our soft spots (features we feel some shame about). In those cases, it can take some concentrated effort to achieve the inner smile.

The practice is key. And the goal is to be able to get into this state most of the time in the space of a breath.

(Side note, Archer suggests that we keep our smile on the inside in face to face interactions. If we let our inner smile turn into an outer smile, it might be misinterpreted.)

Step two: accompany the attack to a point of destabilization

"Accompanying the attack" means we don't resist it. We go with it. We sidle up to our attacker and help them continue the attack. But we do it calmly, with our inner smile firmly in place.

This can have a destabilizing effect. Our attacker was expecting a direct defense that never came, and now it's difficult to proceed as planned.

Notice how Luke handled Peter's attack. When Peter said, "I don't really like this Verbal Aikido thing that you're doing.", Luke didn't get defensive. He aligned himself with Peter and asked very calmly, "What do you like?". And, after a couple more turns in the conversation, Peter's negative energy had completely dissipated.

A practitioner sometimes has a choice at this point. When they sidle up to their attacker they might be able to lead the attacker down a path that ends in embarrassment. They can push things along to an irrational conclusion in order to mock the attacker, and then abandon them as onlookers laugh (in essence using the attacker's momentum to shove them to the ground). And the practitioner might even think the attacker deserves this.

But this would not be the way of Verbal Aikido. The good practitioner has other goals in mind. The good Verbal Aikido practitioner aligns with the momentum of the attacker primarily so the attacker feel understood, and so they can start expressing their concerns in a more productive way (following the lead of the practitioner, who has started exploring the attacker's concerns in a more productive way).

Step three: re-balance the interaction.

Re-balancing the interaction involves two things. It means helping the attacker regain their balance once their negative energy has dissipated. In some cases that means helping them "save face". And it also means proposing ways the conversation can continue that might be satisfying for both parties. 

Luke does both of these things in the training dialogue. Along the way he praises Peter, saying he likes the idea of "genuine" conversations. And in his last turn in the conversation, he invites Peter to continue the conversation in a way that might be satisfying for both of them: "How about we just sit down, the two of us, and just sort of brainstorm some stuff and just see what we can come up with. I guarantee we're going to find something that would interest people. What do you think?"

Verbal Aikido isn't about embarrassing our interlocutor. And it also isn't about remaining passive. Practitioners do go first in trying to understand their attacker, but, at some point, it's also fair to ask to be understood.

One way to move the conversation in a mutually satisfying direction, while allowing the other person to save face, is to invite them to play the game we would like to play while giving them the choice to opt out. To this effect, we might say something like: "Are you interested in exploring the pros and cons of both of our positions? Or would you rather do something else?"

At that point, our interlocutor is free to accept or reject the invitation. Often they will accept.

Beyond verbal self-defense

Sometimes we don't feel attacked in a conversation, but we also don't like the way the conversation is going. Perhaps we don't like the framing of the discussion or the dynamics of the interaction. Perhaps we want to discuss policy, and they want to demonize an out-group. Or perhaps we want them to actually engage with what we are saying, but they seem more interested in grandstanding for an audience.

In this case, we can pause to make sure we are in full possession of our inner smile, and then simply invite them to play our game (skipping over step two).