How To Use Verbal Judo

Defusing hostile situations through conversations

Posted Oct 15, 2012

Today's post is dedicated to those who expressed a desire for more information about how verbal judo works, based on my previous post.  Verbal judo is best defined as a gentle yet powerful way of persuasion. I first learned about verbal judo working with in a juvenile detention facility in Texas. Most of the students in the facility were survivors of traumas, who had developed a pattern of becoming reactive in response to triggers that reminded them of their trauma. Before I proceed, I want to state that the two names used in today’s post are made up for obvious reasons, but the story is true.

A common reoccurring trigger for violence was the perception of disrespect. Regardless of how big the staff member was, some students had come to see it as a badge of honor to be physically restrained by staff. Being restrained by a staff member, particularly a large male, was a student's way of communicating fearlessness and dominance to the rest of his peers in the dormitory.

Here lied the problem, students were quick to learn about all staff members through daily observations and interactions, so those looking to earn respect through a physical confrontation had the upper hand as they knew exactly what buttons to push with the staff. As a result, injuries on both sides resulting from these alterations were common place. So a lot of restraints took place after a student had threatened the life of another peer or staff, refused to be led away by security to isolation, and invited a challenge to be physically restrained.

Once after receiving my first training in verbal judo, it wasn't long before a situation presented itself to practice what I had learned. There was a new student in the dormitory and he was openly gay. On the third day after he arrived in the facility, one of the students confronted me.

"Mr Uche, when is this #%*@! leaving this dorm? Get him the #%*! of this dorm or I swear to God, I am going to kill him." Upon hearing this, my reaction was to reach for my walkie talkie to summon the security team. "Go ahead call 'em," by the time they get here it’s on,” he said as he glared at me.

The rest of the students now stood from their chairs with their hands placed behind their backs, as this was the rule when security was about to be called. This allowed the security personal to distinguish who the student they would be escorting was. I hesitated as I held the walkie talkie to my mouth, I knew he would make do on his threat as soon as I placed the call. To this day, I believe that whenever therapeutic personnel engaged in restraints, it undermines trust in the therapeutic relationship, and overall the work we did with the population. I thought things through briefly, then decried to try verbal judo.

"Rodriguez, are you threatening to attack me if I call security?"

"It's not a threat, it's a promise," Rodriguez replied.

"Why would you make such a promise?"

"Cause I don't want to go to security, and you put a #*%@! in our dorm. Not cool Mr. Uche, not cool."

"So you are upset that Luke identifies himself as being gay and that he lives in this dorm?"

"Yeah," Rodriguez replied nodding his head.

"Mr. Uche doesn't get to decide who lives here, he just works with us." One of the older students said.

"Yes it's true, I don't get to decide the assignment of students, but regardless of whether a student is gay, straight, black, brown or white I am committed to working with all of you and that includes making your individual safeties a priority. Rodriguez, if any other student had  threatened your safety, I too would call security and have them placed into isolation. So now I going to call security, I do hope you reconsider your promise. Because if you choose violence, you will only prolong your stay in the program by at least an extra three months."

Rodriguez did not respond to me, and I followed through with my request for security. He would be escorted to isolation without incident. Before day's end he would request to speak with me in his cell room, where he conveyed his apologies for his earlier threats. On condition of his return to the dorm, he wrote an apology letter to Luke, committing never to address him with slurs and never to threaten Luke’s safety. Not only did this incident, strengthen my relationship with Rodriguez, the students in the dormitory became tight nit. For a record of six months there were no threats or physical alterations in the dormitory.

This is the essence of how verbal judo works, redirecting hostile energy directed towards you, and influencing an aggressor to think on your terms. This is done with genuine compassion towards the aggressor and genuine confidence in yourself. It is a process of getting people to transition from thinking with their reptilian brain to thinking with their pre frontal cortex.

Often times when I teach or explain verbal judo, people challenge me with hypothetical situations where an aggressor resorts to spontaneous physical aggression. The truth is physical aggression can be predicted and avoided if we learn to listen to our natural ability to detect the cues.

I will write more about this in another post, for now here are some references on books that discuss verbal judo to various extents, one of them is written by myself. As usual, whether you agree or disagree, all appropriate comments are welcome.

Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art Persuasion  By George Thompson

Anger Management 101: Taming the Beast Within By Ugo Uche

The Gift of Fear Gavin De Baker

Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions a professional counseling private practice based in Tucson AZ.

About the Author

Ugo Uche is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in adolescents and young adults.

More Posts