Managing conflict like a master

red belt

“Everything has a force.
Embrace it or deflect it – why oppose it?”
- Red Belt

In David Mamet’s great martial arts flick Red Belt (“one of the best!” raves Garrett Taylor), the above words are spoken by the martial arts master in reference to dealing with conflict. As a student of aikido, which is based in part on the principle of using your opponent’s energy against them through deflection in some cases, these words piqued my interest, and over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about whether they are words to live by or just meaningless dialogue. Thanks to a recent situation with my two-year-old daughter, I’ve come to believe the former.

The situation was one that many parents with multiple kids have probably found themselves in: during bath time, my two-year-old daughter decided it would be funny to splash daddy as I sat by the tub. After a few requests in babytalk to stop (“daddy says no splashing please”), her older and wiser four-and-a-half-year-old brother then decided to encourage her, even while I was trying to stop her from splashing and him from telling her to do it more. Not only was I getting wet, but so was the floor, and the bigger principle of my authority was being tested. And I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet. What to do?

Going back to the movie quote, it seems I had three options: I could oppose what she was doing directly, embrace it, or deflect it. If I opposed it, by raising my voice and telling her to stop for example, the likely result would be her stopping but at the cost of her crying, which may result in my son crying, which would just make an already long day longer; if I embraced what she was doing, I could just say f-it, get wet and clean up the bathroom later – not a terrible solution but, again, at the end of a long day, not my preference; or I could deflect it by using another toy to distract her from splashing.

So what did I do? Without reflection, I channeled a prototypical 1950s father and began to raise my voice (I really didn’t want to get wet) until my red-belt wearing wife, zen master that she is, picked up a toy and waved it in front of my daughter, who then took the toy and forgot about the splashing. Without a catalyst, my son went back to doing whatever he was doing – silently. Case closed. While I had attempted to oppose my daughter’s force, which was only seconds away from causing unnecessary tears, my wife deflected it perfectly. And now, whenever my daughter feels the splashing spirit, I quickly grab a toy to distract/deflect.

I’d argue these words have broader application to conflict management as a whole, not just with bathing toddlers. Let’s say your boss (at work, not your spouse) has just harshly chastised you because your team missed a deadline. Not your fault of course (Jim on your team has really been dropping the ball lately), but as the leader, definitely your responsibility. So again, you have three options: oppose the reprimand, embrace it, or deflect it.

If you oppose it, you could defend yourself and start making excuses – Jim’s under-performing, resources are lacking, expectations are unreasonable, etc. While each one may be true, it will probably just piss off your boss and make it sound like you’re not listening nor willing to admit your mistake. On the other hand, you could deflect it (what about Jill and her team? She’s gone way over budget!) but again, probably not what your boss wants to hear. Finally you could embrace it by apologizing for missing the deadline, empathizing with your boss’s situation (“I know you have a big board meeting next week and this is the last thing you need”), and promising to investigate the reason and correct it so it will never happen again. Your usually reasonable boss probably feels listened to, trusts that it won’t happen again since it’s rare for you to disappoint, and maybe, thanks to your apology and empathy, apologizes to you for flying off the handle. Or maybe not. Either way, sounds like the best result of the three options for dealing with this  situation.

“So what’s the lesson?” the hero in Red Belt asks his martial arts class during the movie (and a question my own sensei often indirectly asks): never directly oppose an incoming force – embrace it or deflect it to get the best results.

Of course, as with any principle, there are always exceptions – maybe a direct confrontation offers other benefits that outweigh the costs of direction opposition. But overall, whether it’s with your kids or your boss, these seem to be words to live by.