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Office Atemi: it's not all hugs and rainbows

Since my post about Aikido at work. a few months ago, I’ve received a number of questions that have the same theme. Take this one from reader Kevin:

I like what you’re saying about resolving conflict, but doesn’t that [mean] you’re always reactive? Where I work, there’s a lot of office politics, (mostly indirect backstabbing and bitching), and taking the high road usually gets people screwed.

I feel you, Kevin. There are a lot of toxic office environments out there where this is the case. There are some people that would give you the cheap and easy response of going somewhere else for work, but that kind of answer is BS. It’s hard to leave a job, and everyone has different tolerances for risk.

Back to crux your question, it’s easy to see Aikido techniques as only reactive, particularly when applied to interpersonal dynamics. The language and framing of Aikido as an “art of peace” certainly contributes to this. However, not all resolution can be resolved gently, so let’s discuss what that means.

In Aikido techniques, there is the concept of atemi, which is a strike against your attacker or uke. This may seem counter to the philosophy, and more reminiscent of more aggressive martial arts, but the difference is in application. In the majority of the cases, the blow is not intended to be more than a distraction. The purpose is to keep your uke off-balance so that they don’t notice the real technique that you are about to apply to them. Some practitioners consider it more of a feint than a true strike, but that is not always the case. Each practitioner develops their own personal code of what’s acceptable for them.1

This is important, because there are going to be times where you need to strike. Thinking in terms of how you described your office environment, where your co-workers may occasionally try to outmaneuver each other with indirect smears, is a good example of where this is needed. The most toxic type of conflicts are those which don’t get resolved, and the quickest way to resolve them is to address them head-on. In an ideal situation, this would be along the lines of saying to someone, “Hey, I’m hearing some disturbing things about what you’ve been saying about me. Can we talk about that?”

If people respond to that, it’s an opportunity to talk it out, and if things escalate you can apply the techniques discussed in the last post. Alternatively, if they try to dodge the question, it’s a good example of where atemi is useful.2 A virtual strike that looks like an attack, when used to draw out the conflict and bring it to a place where it can be resolved, can be quite useful.

This is not to say that you should go around picking fights with people. That is counter ot the spirit of the practice. Remember, an atemi is never the point of the exercise. It’s a distraction that’s designed to make it easier for you to get uke to come into alignment with your technique. Your intention is to bring a peaceful resolution, not to crush them.

As we discussed last time, the point is not to win. You have to let go of the idea of winning and losing. Your intention should be to do no harm, and if unavoidable, your goal is to inflict no more hurt than absolutely necessary. Remember that this is your colleague, and you will spend more time with them than you do with your own family. It’s in everyone’s best interest to foster an environment of tranquil cooperation. If you’re up for it, you can be an agent of change in your workplace, and if you aren’t, the option of stepping off the mat by going to a new job is still an option. Let your heart guide you.

  1. This is a good measure to use along with the common sense of picking your battles. If applying the technique means that you’re going to have to “hit” harder than you are willing, that’s a way to identify that you should walk away from this fight and put it behind you. ↩︎

  2. Metaphorically, of course. Don’t go hitting your co-workers. ↩︎

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