“Hey, we still have three minutes left.” I said in what I thought was a joking manner as I approached the exit. The staff person on duty at the community center where we held our aikido classes was locking the door just before the 9pm closing time.
I expected her to come back at me with a similarly light retort, but, instead, she rounded on me and threw a verbal blast of angry accusations. “I’m paid to close up at 9pm and then go home, but you people are always making me stay late. I don’t get paid overtime for closing late. You people are so inconsiderate!”
Initially, I felt a surge of anger at her unjustified accusation. I wasn’t late. Where did she get off yelling at me? She was just a lazy employee trying to leave her job early. But, instead of responding to her in kind by sending back some angry retort, for some reason, inexplicable to me at the moment, I paused and let her angry words flow past me as I held back my own angry response.
And then, as she paused for a breath prior to continuing her verbal attack, I quickly inserted into the brief silence an apology for what I had done, rather than what she accused me of doing. “You know”, I said, “We aren’t late today, but I suspect that we have been late on other nights and kept you here past closing time. That was thoughtless of me and I apologize. I’ll try to do better in the future.”
At first, it was as if I had not spoken. She continued her tirade. However, after a few seconds, she slowed down and then stopped as my words finally penetrated. After a brief pause during which I could see her processing what I had said, she said “Well, it is not really your people. Your guys are okay. It’s the people on Monday and Wednesday nights who keep me late and are so inconsiderate in other ways. You rarely keep me late and your guys are always nice. On nights when I am nervous about walking out to the parking lot, one of your guys walks me to my car. And, on icy nights, you and your guys wait in your cars in the parking lot until everyone is out and make sure that no one gets left behind stuck on the ice. I am sorry for yelling at you.”
As I exited the building, I was feeling great. Typically, I would have yelled back at her, reached no satisfactory resolution, and then left the building fuming. Then I would have spent the next hour or two thinking of additional angry retorts that I should have voiced. The altercation could have ruined the remainder of my evening. Instead, I had managed to sidestep her attack and respond in a way that allowed both of us to win, or perhaps, neither of us to lose.
As I thought about it, I realized that I had “won” the “fight”, not by overwhelming my “opponent” with force, that is, not by responding in kind to her angry outburst, but by finding a way to accept her “attack” and “disarm” her with an unexpected response that resulted in her actually apologizing to me.
That was when I began to truly believe that there might be something to this “aiki” stuff after all.