This column will change your life: think aikido

When it comes to dealing with life's low-level conflicts – the kind of petty sniping some of you may just possibly be about to experience in the coming days – the Japanese martial art of aikido might not seem a promising source of solutions. Faced with a clash of views over turkey preparation, TV viewing choices or your uncle's thoughts on the immigrants, it's impractical to wait for a physical confrontation and then, using only the gentlest of movements, to rechannel your assailant's energy to send him or her somersaulting backwards over the dinner table, neutralised yet unharmed. But an approach surprisingly close to this in spirit – admittedly without the somersaults – lies at the heart of a book entitled Aikido In Everyday Life, by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller, published 35 years ago and due for rediscovery. Their metaphorical version of aikido won't impress bystanders like the person-hurling one. But it may prove more useful.

The key claim of Aikido In Everyday Life (which I found via Mark Peckett, a reader and aikido practitioner) is that we make one huge mistake where conflict's concerned. Conflict itself is unavoidable, but we're too quick to assume that any given conflict is also a contest – a zero-sum game, in which one side wins by making the other lose. Treat a friendship, job or marriage like a contest, and you've already determined how you'll respond: by trying to score points until someone admits defeat. (Often, that'll be you. And even if you "win" a battle with a partner or friend, the damage to the relationship may feel like a loss.) "You know why on some days it seems as if everybody's winning but you?" the authors ask. "Because you've bought into an imaginary, arbitrary system where everything's a contest and there are no ties – just sudden-death playoffs." You can only lose a contest once you've agreed to play by its rules.

The point of their system – which, in 1970s self-help style, they branded "Attack-tics" – isn't to pretend that conflict doesn't exist, or that you should claim the moral high ground and refuse to fight. It's that there are other ways to fight. You could use the tactic they call "doing nothing": pause, temporarily offering no response while your opponent exhausts his arguments, or even starts to argue himself round to your side. Or you could choose "aiki", the highest principle of aikido, which translates roughly as "blending" with the attacker, then turning his or her energies away from confrontation to resolution. How? First, seek "confluence" with your opponent, for example by conceding that his feelings are understandable, or that she might have a point. Then, use the surprised pause that follows to take the lead, reframing the problem as a shared one. (In one of their examples, a fight between neighbours over a dog gets recast as one about the challenges of living at close quarters.)

This all sounds rather mystical, I know; becoming a black belt in everyday aikido would surely take years of practice. But any of us could train ourselves to respond, when tempers flare, with an internal question: is this conflict a contest? It probably needn't be. "There is no rule that says every thrust requires a parry or riposte," write Dobson and Miller. You could just ask your attacker to pass the roast potatoes

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