Verbal Aikido - Green Belt Luke A Archer Defend yourself from verbal attackIt may surprise you that a verbal attack can be much trickier and more difficult to deal with than a physical attack. And you never know when one might come.

A few years ago, a new supervisor was appointed to the gym where I hire space to teach martial arts, specifically Aikido.

She was chosen to be tough, no holds-barred. She changed the timetable, without consulting, changed the contract without agreement and generally made it difficult to run my class.

I remember sitting in her office, as she pushed her weight around without any hint of flexibility. If her verbal aggressiveness had been physical, I’d have had no problem in defending myself and my class. But it wasn’t. I had no idea how to protect myself or my students and I didn’t like it.

Most of us are lucky in that we are rarely attacked physically – but most of us will find ourselves facing verbal attacks on frequent occasions. They might be obvious – a car driver insulting a pedestrian – or disguised – a teacher subtly undermining a student. But these attacks all matter.

Recognising a verbal attack

Unlike physical attacks, a verbal attack is not so easily recognised. Skillful verbal attackers may make out that they are actually trying to support you, even as they subtly cut the ground from under your feet.

“We understand how difficult you find this job…”

“Of course, someone with your background is always going to need extra help…”

But somehow, however friendly the attacker, you somehow find yourself feeling diminished, off-balance, failing in some way. Often, you feel that it’s your own fault, in some way. That you’ve failed to live up to some important standard, without quite knowing how.

The first step

This – in fact – is the first step: you can’t defend yourself until you know you’re under attack. And the first sign of a verbal – as opposed to a physical – attack is that feeling of being diminished.

Charles Harris Aikido 6th Dan But what do you do? Whoever said “sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never harm me” was either naive or lying. Words can destroy confidence, relationships, careers and worse.

Surprisingly, considering that we probably undergo thousands more assaults by word than by fist or knife, there have been hardly any books or classes in the subject.

NLP (Neuro-Lingustic Programming) can help – if you can afford the courses. There is one excellent book, written in the 1980s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin (Amazon UKAmazon US) – very much aimed at women in American universities (although men will gain just as much). It seems that US campuses were rife with snide and sly verbal attacks on women then. And perhaps still are.

But now we have a brand new series of books by Verbal Aikido teacher Luke A Archer. Archer is an Irishman living and working in France – and he draws on his experience of Aikido, as well as psychology, to create a brand new but very effective verbal version of the art.

There are two out so far, divided into belts, in traditional martial arts fashion: first Green Belt (UK US), then Orange Belt (UK US). White Belt is promised to finish the series.

Humour and intelligence

Green Belt starts us off gently, as a good martial arts instructor should, introducing us to the basic ideas and giving us some “verbal stretching” to prepare our brains for action.

At the heart of Aikido is the idea that you don’t grapple or block an attacker. Instead you blend with his energy, maintaining your own balance but inducing the attacker to lose balance and fall. (For simplicity, let’s stick with “he” as the attacker). In the process, the Aikido student learns to “enter” the attacker’s space and “turn” his force.

Writing with humour and intelligence, Archer takes the same ideas and adopts them to verbal attacks. So, the first part of the book focuses very much on learning to keep your emotional “balance” – a strong positive feeling which he calls your “Inner Smile”.

Once you have that inner positive feeling, the next step is to Destabilise your attacker. This might sound aggressive, but in fact involves a response (or responses) which put him on the back foot, perhaps by making him think twice about what he just said.

Responses such as “That’s an interesting concept” or “what makes you think that?” Such replies, delivered straight and without rancour, can be remarkably effective in defusing verbal aggression.

Finally, and most importantly you aim to establish “Ai-Ki” – in which both parties reach a balanced state. It may surprise some readers that the aim is not to “win” an argument or make your opponent feel small or defeated. But there’s a rational reason to this.

Know your ideal outcome

Your aim is to live a pleasant life, not surround yourself with people who feel belittled or beaten by you. The “attacker” may well be your boss, or one of your colleagues, your teacher, student, customer or client, your boyfriend, girlfriend, parent or child. The attack itself may not be deliberately vindictive. They may even have a valid criticism or problem to discuss.

An ideal outcome is one in which you remain on good terms and – if necessary – agree a way to sort out the problem, whatever it may be.

And the best way to do this is not to snarl or undercut in return but to stay positive and maintain your Inner Smile.

Yes, it can sound a bit twee, and if I have a criticism of the book – not the concepts – it is that at times Archer’s style can be rather corny. But it’s a small niggle.

Step by step

Green Belt develops the fundamentals in detail, with examples and exercises. Orange Belt, as you’d expect, takes them step by step on to a higher level, with Verbal Aikido 2 Orange Belt Luke A Archer more defence against verbal attackdeeper research, new examples and more challenging exercises.

The Orange Belt book also includes a substantial recap of the key ideas in Green Belt, together with an excellent glossary, so you could start there if you wished. However if you want to get a solid platform to work from, you’d do best to start with the first book and lessons and work your way up. As you would with any course, such as conversational Japanese or indeed Aikido itself!

I’m intrigued that Archer has reversed the normal order of belts – green usually coming after orange and white belts normally worn by beginners. I looked for some kind of explanation. Is he making a Zen comment about needing to keep your “beginner’s mind”? Or is this a not-so covert reference to the flag of his homeland?

However if I have a concern, aside from the language mentioned above, it’s not the content, which is very strong, but that – just as with Aikido – you need to learn from doing. Archer runs live Verbal Aikido courses (get on one if you can) and spends time in the books explaining just how you can set up and run your own. But I wonder how many readers will actually do this.

It can be scary, getting in a room with other people and practising insulting each other! But I have to say, having taught both Aikido and my own NLP-based “Mental Game” and “verbal martial-arts” workshops, there is no substitute for actual practice, and actually an hour or so spent hurling insults and verbal attacks can actually be enormous fun.

You could do no better than learn to deal with it with these two insightful and witty books.