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Change jujutsu: rolling with resistance

What can martial arts teach project professionals?

Source: Master1305 from Freepik (under licence)

Martial arts have much to teach business professionals, especially anyone in Change Management. When you think of martial arts, does an image of fighting and clashing come to mind? Some martial arts offer a different way. Three “sister” martial arts share a common philosophy.

Yielding to an attack, and re-directing an attacker’s energy.

These Japanese martial arts are Jujutsu ¹, Aikido² and Judo ³.

It’s difficult — even impossible — to avoid conflict in business. Matching wits can be fascinating, yielding useful insights. Verbal battles may help us see another’s perspective. I recently saw Margaret Heffernan’s delightful TED Talk ‘Dare to disagree’ ⁴ Margaret inspires me to disagree on issues with my project team respectfully. In doing so, I hope to look at an issue from many angles. Conflict with respect is useful — even invigorating. Vigorous team discussions are valuable when dissent is both respectful and playful!

But what of the less ‘fun’ type of conflict? When others do not share a sense of respect. For change professionals, stakeholders may focus on tearing down the idea of a future way of working. Attacking the case for change, or parts of your change is understandable, given people’s comfort with the status quo.

For anyone working on a project, or leading a business initiative, prolonged conflict can be tiring, risky and quite jarring.

Martial arts teaches useful principles for dealing with people who opt not to battle respectfully nor playfully. One ‘martial principle’ is humility. Humility is a natural by-product for failing many times over. Learning not to struggle against someone, or let your ego get in the way takes time. Martial artists fail many times before learning to relax and work with aggressive energy. Martial artists know to avoid over-confidence; even with years of training, failure is still possible. One misstep, poor timing, bad luck or a better opponent: it doesn’t take much to fail.

Martial artists who have long-term aspirations in learning their art need humility. It’s essential for coping with the metric tonne of failure they face in their learning.

In business, admitting your mistakes or saying the magic words: “I don’t know” is a form of the same humility. In your last project, how many mistakes did you (honestly) make? Do you reflect on these mistakes with a sense of embarrassment, but own up to them? Or do you shift the blame to others, or find it too painful to own up? If a stakeholder “attacks” the concept or decisions behind the change you propose to their organisation, they may be right. Their attack may hit the mark. Or their question has no plain answer. What if they “attack” you in an open forum, such as a Town Hall meeting?

Humility isn’t where you transform into an endlessly-apologetic, self-effacing person. But to acknowledge your shortcomings or a stakeholder’s insightful question? Being tentative in your understanding of another’s situation? Showing curiosity about the perspective of prickly stakeholders? Even those who rattle you, and don’t do “conflict with respect”? Saying “I don’t know” conveys a degree of vulnerability and humility. When asked tough questions by an audience member, it takes courage to ask the whole audience: “Who else thinks the same way?”

These examples of humility show your long-term thinking — like the humble and diligent martial artist. Humility takes a strong character. Are you aspiring to be effective at stakeholder engagement? If you are, the effort you put into this ‘martial principle’ is worth the challenge.

Source: splitov27 from Freepik (under licence)

The principle of blending — not clashing — with an opponent is a core philosophy of Jujutsu, Judo and Aikido. Each uses a circular approach to managing conflict. If an opponent pushes you, go with it. If an opponent grabs you and pulls you toward them, go with it too. You can learn to adapt to whatever “attack” comes your way. In business, especially in leading the people side of change, “attacks” are inevitable.

You can choose to blend with people’s “attacks”, instead of clashing or fighting. Blending means you can be more light-hearted in otherwise challenging circumstances. Combine humility with a blending mindset. You will discover significant insights into people with opposing ideas. Both humility and blending keep your mind open to creative solutions. Standing in front of an audience, being “hit” by difficult questions, scorn and an increasingly hostile group, you can remain calm. Even in the heat of the moment, you may find an idea or workaround solution.

So how do you “blend” with conflicting ideas and challenging questions about your proposed future state?

Seek to draw out your stakeholder’s perspective. The words “Tell me more” are indeed powerful ⁵. It’s easy to feel under attack when difficult questions arise, or pointed comments hit the heart of your proposed change. Or even your contribution to the change. What change professional has received only positive feedback on their deliverables? For example, your mediocre communication, the people you didn’t consult, or a misunderstanding.

But one calm breath, some “humble pie” and an open mind later: “Tell me more”. Great open questions like, “What do you make of that?” also help. My thanks to Dr Gavin Clark. Gavin is an excellent Clinical Psychology teacher. He taught me both that gem of a question and the Socratic method of questioning ⁶ ⁷.

Speaking of Socratic questioning, you can use this technique to learn about opposing perspectives. Louis Theroux is a shining example of Socratic questioning ⁸. Louis is respectful, understated and uses open questions. He elicits the views of people with radically different worldviews. If Louis can blend with these different views, and be comfortably curious with ideas he (and others) may find repugnant, so can we. “Blending” does not mean you entirely agree with another’s view. Like Louis, remain calm and centred yet curious.

Another “blending” mindset for change professionals? The ethos of working with people on their change, rather than doing change to people.

People’s “attacks” may be seen as resistance, or being recalcitrant — if we’re lazy, and want to do change to people. Is your ethos to work with people on their change? And it is their change — not yours. If so, you may perceive the “attacks” differently. An outspoken stakeholder grapples with their intellectual understanding of the change. A team leader venting on the phone to you? They are working through their frustration, as a starting point to ultimately accepting the change. Their “outburst” may yield valuable insights! Your communications, training and engagement approach can become water-tight. Others may share their thoughts and feelings about the change. What answers can you add to your Frequently Asked Questions document? How can you shape your communications? What wording addresses unpalatable aspects of the change?

Many change professionals love working with the passion of various stakeholders. As long as they’re relaxed, they can engage with passionate stakeholders with a spirit of curiosity. Even so, this breed of change professional may often remind themselves of one thing.

Their stakeholders may sound like they are attacking them; the attacks are on the idea of the future state.

This small yet crucial change in their thinking means they don’t take it personally. In jujutsu, this is akin to stepping off the line of attack. Your opponent rushes at you, but you step to the side before they connect with you. Missing their target, your opponent over-extends, and loses their balance. Here is a one-minute video showing Change Jujutsu in action:

Source: Allan Owens

At work, stakeholders may verbalise their concerns about the future state. If you are the person to answer — make the small yet crucial change in your thinking. Know that it’s an attack on the issue, not you. Savvy and curious change professionals may even seek to find out more about stakeholder concerns. They may use thoughtful Socratic questioning and reflect stakeholder’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

Our three martial arts teach exponents techniques to centre themselves. When you’re centred, you feel calm yet alert. Exponents learn to roll with the resistance. When their balance is taken, or your opponent gets the upper hand, you can roll or break fall on hard ground. As a result, falls or any other unexpected event don’t result in injury.

An experienced change professional may see patterns in people’s behaviour. They could see different ways to change their attitude to blend or roll with resistance.

Receive an unexpected question, or a low shot about your change? You might have gotten startled in the moment. Even so, laugh at yourself or take a note about the question is a way to “break fall”. You don’t have to respond to any question or comment immediately either. A good sense of humour goes a long way in helping you “roll” with the unexpected. Even better — time to relax and laugh about “that stakeholder comment” that rattled you with your trusted project colleagues.

You can’t control your opponent, but you can control yourself.

It’s a counter-intuitive point to make: many martial arts are not about fighting. Resolving conflict by rolling with aggression, and neutralising it takes practice. It’s also an apprenticeship steeped in failure. Surviving and learning from repeated failure is why humility is important. Your career on projects will be longer and more enjoyable!

Blending with another’s opposing viewpoint is a useful takeaway from martial arts. And it’s a challenge not to struggle, or “fight back”. Relaxation and humility are a foundation for blending. Pervasive calm and mental flexibility open your mind. You can then explore conflicting viewpoints with grace.

Some of your stakeholders may approach conflict as a fight or contest. They may “throw” you with a strong argument. Knowing how to “break fall” or “roll” in the heat of the moment is invaluable.

Are you comfortable with these martial principles? You can walk into any presentation or stakeholder engagement with greater confidence. No matter what unexpected question or “attack” happens, you now have the principles to deal with it.

When do you get to next practice becoming centred, walking into a challenging stakeholder engagement? When can you practice “rolling” with your stakeholder’s aggression? How do you plan to remain calm, curious and unflappable throughout your practice?

My book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out my online course on Change Management.

1. Jujutsu techniques part 3 — YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzSdD22BqXM. Accessed December 3, 2020.

2. Excellent Aikido Demonstration — YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aicHsMC6rxM. Accessed December 3, 2020.

3. Judo Randori Demonstration | Judo Ann Arbor JMAC — YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zOdXhw4ZnQ. Accessed December 3, 2020.

4. Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree | TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree. Accessed December 3, 2020.

5. Ball K. The Power of 3 Words: Tell Me More. Prosci.com. https://blog.prosci.com/the-power-of-3-words-tell-me-more. Accessed October 31, 2020.

6. Staff Profiles — Psychology, School of — Newcastle University. https://www.ncl.ac.uk/psychology/staff/profile/gavinclark.html#background. Accessed December 3, 2020.

7. Heiniger LE, Clark GI, Egan SJ. Perceptions of Socratic and non-Socratic presentation of information in cognitive behaviour therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2018;58:106–113. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2017.09.004

8. Harrison E. The 7 best Louis Theroux documentaries. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/louis-theroux-documentaries-best-films-how-watch-a9522616.html. Published 2020. Accessed December 3, 2020.

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Allan Owens

Senior organisational change manager. Provisional Psychologist. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion. www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au