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I’ve always been fascinated with martial arts.

Long before I ever took a class, I was intrigued with the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of this sport. Or, more accurately, way of life.

A Bruce Lee movie was likely responsible for catching my interest at first. I was amazed at the extreme discipline and focus that carried over into all areas of his life. I still stop and watch his movies while channel surfing. And I have his book, “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do,” on my shelf.

There are hundreds of different types of martial arts that have been developed and practiced all over the world. A listing of some of the popular styles, compiled by, may sound familiar: karate, kung fu, judo, aikido, taekwondo, qigong and boxing. Yes, boxing is technically a type of martial art — one that has been greatly popularized in our Western world.

Biggest lesson from my first class

Of the many things I learned in my first kung fu class (thanks, Ron Wilkerson, Robby and the YWCA), the thing that stood out most for me was the concept of deflecting an opponent’s energy. Oh, how handy that could come in these days.

Aikido, which translates in English to “the way of the harmonious spirit,” is the type that often comes to mind with the “deflection of energy” concept. It’s a Japanese martial art that uses the principles of nonresistance to neutralize an opponent.

Aikido doesn’t offer aggressive or defensive maneuvers, but instead uses the energy of an opponent to divert and redirect an attack harmlessly, explains writer and executive coach Don Johnson ( The philosophy is based on peaceful resolution and self-improvement.

Applying this principle, it only takes one conscious person to stop an argument.

Why do we get into arguments?

“The cause of arguments is a lack of mutual, empathic understanding,” writes Jeffery S. Smith, M.D., in Psychology Today. “When empathy is not engaged, people revert to self-protective modes and become judgmental. The result is a bad feeling on both sides — with no happy ending.”

We want to be understood, not just heard. Empathy comes in when you look at the situation from another point of view. Cue the fifth habit, popularized in Stephen Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”: Seek first to understand — then to be understood.

Mental shortcuts

Why do we sometimes lose the ability to be empathetic in our relationships, particularly our close couple relationships?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, has developed the theory that we have two different systems of thinking: System 1 and System 2. System 1 thinking operates quickly, without concentrated effort. It’s more unconscious, emotional and automatic.

We use System 1 when driving a car on an open road or doing something familiar like reading words on a giant billboard, explains Kahneman. System 2, on the other hand, is logical, rational and conscious. We use it when solving complicated calculations or adjusting our behavior in a social situation.

When faced with familiar situations, people invent mental shortcuts, says Kahneman. If something looks easy, we use System 1, our more unconscious method of thinking. This can get us into trouble, though, since it may lead to biases toward everyday situations in close relationships.

We get used to our partner’s thought patterns and behavior. They become familiar and predictable. “It’s easy to go on autopilot and default to System 1 thinking,” says Kahneman, “particularly when we get triggered, frustrated or stressed.”

When we’re emotional, we’re more apt to make assumptions, jump to conclusions and get defensive. Empathy can then slip right through our fingers.

Active listening

Pay attention when you’re communicating. Here are a few tips from Kahneman, as well as my professional experience:

  1. Don’t get distracted. When you’re looking away or fidgeting, it seems disrespectful. Look at the person who’s speaking to you.
  2. Be quiet. If you interrupt, stop doing it. It’s a sign you’re not really listening — and that you’re more interested in getting your point across.

Demonstrate your presence. Nod occasionally and maintain eye contact as much as possible. Silence makes people wonder if anyone is at home. With my professional presentations, nothing is worse than an audience that looks like an oil painting — not expressing anything.

  1. Summarize what you’ve heard and ask questions for clarification. If you don’t understand, say, “I’m not clear” or “Help me out here.” These work much better than, “You’re not making sense.” This can create defensiveness with the other person.

Verbal aikido

Circling back to our martial arts theory, remember that it only takes one person to stop an argument. Arguments are like two people physically pushing on one another, illustrates author Johnson. One pushes; the other pushes back. Then the other pushes back harder. Nothing is accomplished, and everyone feels bad.

By using the principle of deflecting an opponent’s energy, verbal aikido defuses conflicts and helps individuals rekindle empathy. Let’s imagine a husband and wife are arguing:

  • “That’s a dumb idea. It won’t work.” (An example of pushing.)
  • “You’re wrong.” (Pushing back, creating more friction.)

Verbal aikido can help stop the “pushing,” according to Johnson. Here’s how it works:

  • Yield — acknowledge the other point of view. You don’t have to agree with it.
  • Inquire — probe further, without attacking.
  • Share — explain your point of view.
  • Stay in System 2 thinking, rather than reverting to autopilot System 1 thinking.
  • Resolve — work on a joint solution.

Lifelong learning

While I haven’t continued my physical pursuit of the martial arts, I remain grounded in many of its mental and spiritual principles. I’d like to conclude with a pearl of wisdom from Bruce Lee that relates well to today’s topic.

“To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person.”

©2020 Linda Arnold Live Life Fully, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold, M.A., M.B.A., is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at For information on her books, go to or