I am struck by the similarity between aikido’s non-aggressive approach to conflict and aspects of Assertiveness Training in psychology. In situations of verbal or physical conflict, many people do not stand up for themselves because they do not know how to do so without responding in kind, i.e., without attacking their attacker. People do not want to respond to an attack with an attack for a variety of reasons, including lack of confidence that they have the skill to win in that way, fear that such a response would result in serious injury, or ethical opposition to such a response. For whatever reason, some people want to find a way to respond to other people’s aggression towards them without being aggressive themselves, but also without allowing the aggressor to walk over them, either figuratively or literally. Assertiveness training helps people to stand up for themselves against verbal aggression in a non-aggressive way. Aikido teaches the same thing about responding to physical aggression.
I have come to realize that this is one of the attractions that aikido has for me in that it has motivated me to find ways to respond to physical and verbal aggression without doing serious harm to the person attacking me. For example, like most people, in my daily life I encounter people who are upset with me for various reasons. Some are quite verbally aggressive in their attempts to “persuade” me of the rightfulness, or righteousness, of their position. I have found that yelling back at them rarely results in a feeling of satisfaction, even if I “win” the argument. Frequently, I feel the aftereffects of the argument’s emotional upset for long after I supposedly won. What kind of a victory was that? Nowadays, I am much more likely to try to find a way to resolve interpersonal conflict in a way that allows both parties to retain their self-esteem, making it more likely that, in the future, we can interact in a way that does not require the loser to perpetuate the conflict in order to even the score.
I believe that this change in my approach to being attacked owes much to aikido’s focus on neutralizing an attack rather than injuring the attacker. With such an approach, one learns to cease defensive efforts when the attacker stops attacking. This is more difficult than it seems. As a teacher, I frequently see on the mat that students who began an interaction as the one being attacked continue their efforts to “defend” even after the attacker has stopped attacking. In other words, they are now attacking the attacker, thereby extending the interaction even after they achieved their objective, which should have been avoiding being harmed, not harming the guy who was trying to harm them. Being attacked, either physically or verbally, can elicit an almost overwhelming urge to “get” the guy who attacked you, i.e., to do to him what he wanted to do to you. Aikido training and Assertiveness Training help people overcome their emotional reactions to being attacked and to focus on protecting themselves without going after the attacker.