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Verbal Taijutsu – Water

As I mentioned last month a number of people have asked me to cite applications of our martial arts system to activities in daily life. I very much enjoy these questions. Our art is so rich. For example, I know of a currently popular martial art that stresses the strategy – dominate, dominate, dominate; it is their mantra, if you will. That is all well and good if you are in a position to dominate. If you are bigger and stronger or you have more resources, etc. then simply overwhelming an opponent might make sense.

Our art is founded on the five elements model: earth, water, fire, wind, and void. From this perspective it can be observed that approaches like the one that I mentioned above are limited to only one strategic option as opposed to several. How many times have you witnessed people (maybe even yourself – be honest) attempting to dominate a situation, or a conversation, when they were not in the appropriate position to do so. Of course, the results were less than optimal at the least, and disastrous at worst.

By understanding the nature and essence of these elements as they relate to the human experience we have the power to manage ourselves, and therefore our life experience, in a mindful and much more positive and satisfying way. So let’s take a look at the water element.

The water element physically is about fluidity and the sense of a back and forth energy. That is why we often use the image of a wave pulling back from the shore and crashing back in to express this concept to beginners. In terms of our psyche, the water element is associated with knowledge and information. From an emotional perspective we all want to be confident that what we believe (the knowledge and information that we are operating from) is true. Of course we are all susceptible to becoming overly attached to beliefs that actually are not true. That is a different and very complex discussion indeed. Let’s focus on applying the concept to communication skills as promised.

There are a couple of fundamental applications for the water element as it relates to communication skill and strategy. These are the basics and this outline is cursory, yet very powerful nonetheless.

First, as the water element is about information and knowledge it only stands to reason that developing good listening and observing skills applies here. The most frequent complaint I hear related to communication is “people don’t listen.” We are all guilty. Thoughts come during a conversation and we want to express them before they are lost, so we cut someone off. Or we are to busy devising our rebuttal or counter attack and are not hearing and considering what is being said. Try to practice this when the conversation is not under specific and real (not imagined or self imposed) time pressure. Effective listening is a skill and therefore requires awareness and practice. I don’t know anyone who could not use some practice here, myself included.

Secondly, from the water element and strategy it is very useful to communicate in the form of questions. Communicating by asking questions prevents us from issuing a perceived attack on the ego. Once the ego feels assaulted listening shuts down, defense barriers go up, and counterattack plans are under way and the center of focus. For example, instead of saying “I just don’t understand why you think that’s right,” you might say something like “can you help me understand why you believe that is right.” It is essential that you use a genuinely curious tone of voice as opposed to an aggressive, shaming and blaming tone. Take a minute right now to practice the difference.

Thirdly, we must be willing to entertain the idea that our position may indeed be incorrect, just like on the mat. For example, someone might introduce a new piece of information that alters what you believe is true. If you are overly attached to your belief (in other words, you are too rigid and not willing to adapt) this inflexibility will almost certainly work against you.

So, from the water element energy three things to consider in developing good communication skills are:

  1. practice acquiring good listening skills.
  2. practice asking more questions and issuing fewer statements.
  3. practice questioning your assumptions about what you believe is true.

In my years as a consultant to a number of fortune 500 companies I frequently observed that communication was both the problem and the solution. This is true for life in general. Make it a point to practice applying these water element concepts to your own life experience for the next month. I can practically guarantee surprising results. One caveat: be sure your intentions are good. It is easy to get lured in to being a self-centered manipulator, applying these skills for selfish and dangerous reasons. Keep it positive and make it fun!

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