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Dr. George Thompson

Communition Used Wisely

The Art of Verbal Judo

By Jerry Grunska


Times have changed. Society is more crude. Ferocious self-expression is rampant. Curses and obscenities are the norm. Unfettered violence against undeserving individuals is not only tolerated, but under some circumstances it is actively stimulated.

In a cultural climate such as this, how can sports officials operate to counter the impression that they are "the enemy"? More than that, the question becomes, how can they exercise discretionary judgment and fulfill their assigned role of staunch game administrators? "Verbal judo" is one way that officials can assert themselves in ways that fend off unwarranted attacks and at the same time garner the respect their efforts deserve.

That assessment of the way things are is the opinion of John McPhail, Associate of the Verbal Judo Institute, an organization that conducts training seminars in effective communication under stressful conditions. Sports officials are obliged to employ counter measures, dealing carefully with pressures, acknowledging in their response patterns that otherwise normal people may be acting far from normal in the combative tension that games evoke.

President of the movement is Dr. George J. Thompson, whose 1993 book, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, describes the elements of the philosophy about how to succeed in tense verbal encounters. "Be careful to distinguish between reasonable and severe resistance (to your authority)," Thompson warns. When a disagreement escalates to threats, alternate measures are necessary.

Verbal judo is a system of expression designed to defuse animosities. Its methods embrace the notion that one must subdue natural impulses in dealing with antagonists, because the basic human inclination is to fight back verbally when challenged or insulted. Therefore, verbal judo is a learned response, and its success can be measured by the amount of ingrained tendencies a person is able to overcome. In other words, what comes naturally can come harmfully. Sports officials must sublimate their natural human reactions in verbal confrontations.

Thompson maintains that "the cocked tongue" is the most dangerous weapon in tense situations today. The impetus for firing off retaliatory, caustic rejoinders has to be muffled if a person in charge of soliciting cooperation from others is to influence people successfully. "The ultimate goal is voluntary compliance," Thompson says, and for the most part he is speaking of societys rules enforcers such as airline flight attendants, hospital emergency room nurses, recreational directors, police officers, sports officials and even nightclub bouncers and parking lot personnel.

How would it work for sports officials? Well, to understate it, sometimes officials find themselves in a hostile environment. When the going gets tough, the human reaction is to dig in your heels and offer firm resistance. Wrong move, Thompson says. The ordinary habit of aggressive reaction has to be replaced by a transformed method of studied response. Studied because verbal judo is an acquired skill; it does not flow instinctively.

Dont be confused by the name. Although judo is indeed a martial art, it is a defensive strategy. Karate is the aggressive Japanese form of combat. Judo seeks to deflect the thrust of an attacker and use that force to affect a beneficial result. Hence, verbal judo is strictly a defense mechanism, what could be called parrying. "Judo is the art of redirecting an opponents energy to achieve a goal," is how Thompson phrases it.

The first requisite for easing a tense verbal encounter is actually two-pronged. First, Thompson says, you must "learn to take crap with dignity and style." Second, you must learn to project empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. You dont have to feel the other persons pain, but you do have to step into his shoes or his head figuratively, understanding exactly what his motivation may be and acknowledging that motivation by projecting a clear show of respect. Thompson says that carries with it a commitment to partnership. "Were in this thing together. Lets move toward a goal of reasonable harmony. The integrity of the game is whats important."

"Treat people with respect simply because its right," is Thompsons simple credo. To be a judicious responder you have to contrive substitute words for expressions that may come readily to your lips. According to Thompson, you have to put a silencer on the cocked tongue by:

a. Using words to redirect the negative force of others.

b. Practicing mind-mouth harmony.

c. Taking control of situations without escalating stress and frustration.

Before explaining what phrases make verbal judo work, Thompson offers some caveats. Patent reactions that antagonize rather than empathize include:

"Thats the rule." Hiding behind a formal definition just throws up a smokescreen, according to the author. "Rather," he says, "explain your purpose, pointedly, briefly, using logic to clarify." Officials are sometimes inclined to illustrate their knowledge by offering rulebook definitions in support of decisions. If judgment is based on a rule interpretation, the way to explain it is to use "game" language and condense the concept in a one or two sentence overview.

"Calm down." That phrase works just the opposite. It infuriates. Instead settle for, "Lets talk. Whats the trouble?" Get an explanation, because explaining defuses anger. A critical strategy for officials when challenged or attacked is to turn the situation into a listening encounter. Easy to say, hard to do. But the longer a person talks, the less fervid his animosity is. The official must stifle the urge for a blunt reaction. A judicious pause may be the most effective communication device there is. A docile countenance can also beget a mellower approach.

"Be reasonable." The only way to stimulate rationality is to be reasonable yourself. You can deflect unreasoning by paraphrasing what you heard. After listening, "report back" to the speaker. "Heres what I heard you say" works better than an outright denial of the other persons position. After the paraphrase an official may relay his point effectively through a frank issuance of logic. That assures that the antagonists point has been heard, digested and addressed.

It may go without saying that the first requisite of effective "disarming" is to listen. "Listening in our society is most often confused with waiting to interrupt," says Thompson. Good listening must be active, and direct eye contact, erect posture and a slight lean toward the speaker project that image, with arms at ease and no hand gestures. The face must also be bland and not contorted in a frown. You may have to train yourself in a mirror to achieve that professional aspect.

Here are some specific situations you may be familiar with: A baseball coach comes down from the coaching box at the end of an inning, on the way to the players bench. He stops and speaks in even tones: "It looks to me like youre calling shoulder-high pitches strikes. I can see the level from where I stand. My catcher also says some of the strikes youre calling are unhittable." OK, theres the needle. How do you extract it?

How about this one from the football field: "You know that punter took a dive! My man barely breathed on him. Cmon, everythings going their way. All youve got is a fistful of flags for us. Youre terrible!"

Or this one from the basketball court: "You know darned well their player knocked that ball out of bounds. Whatre you looking at? Besides, their pivot guy is camped in the lane. Cant you count to three seconds? Im tired of your gnawing on that whistle! You guys reek. We get a hose job every time we come here."

How can you really "take crap with dignity?" Words hurt; theres no mincing away the concept. "Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts," is how Thompson puts it. His initial pupils were policemen. Thats how his theory got started. "You can call me anything you want, but Ive still got a job to do," is the way he trained police to let verbal abuse slide past.

That is a psychological mindset. Good officials can program themselves to shuck verbal slings and arrows. That means letting a person have a full say without flinching. Then start by acknowledging that a person may have a legitimate point of view (empathy), even if he doesnt have one. Thompson offers catchphrases, such as, "I preciate that. I see your point. Youre entitled to that view. I hear ya. That may well be. I understand that, etc." He deliberately chops off words to extend a sort of semi-agreement through the colloquialisms. All of those catchphrases are then followed by the word but . Then the response follows, delivered with a modulated voice pitch, measured pace and even tone.

If things are more heated, you may need to immediately take control of the conversation by beginning with a phrase like, "Whoa! Hold on. Wait a sec." Those additional "strip phrases," as Thompson calls them, are the springboards for the parrying process. "Lets be sure I heard you right," is the next step, which also shows youre empathizing with the other person. Then follows the genuine secret of the judo act, paraphrasing (see sidebar, "The 14 Benefits of Paraphrasing"). Keep in mind, as Thompson says, that "90 percent of your success will lie in your delivery style."

"Remember," Thompson goes on, "you are on display. Your uniform and your position guarantee that. (You also possess the hammer, but you dont have to use it.) Consequently, you are an actor In some sense you have to put on a show. You dont have to save face." But the other person may indeed have to save face: before his players, in the eyes of his assistants, in the regard of his other followers. He has constituents; you do not.

To some degree, Thompson says, you have to "train yourself to say the opposite of what you feel" when under verbal attack. You have to "use language disinterestedly, unemotionally and without bias." It is not acceptable for the official to fight back. If you do blurt a sharp commentary, what may make you feel good temporarily is likely to make you feel bad in the long run.

What happens when you offer any of these rejoinders? "Stop your sniping!" "Im not taking any more of your guff!" "Shut up and coach your kids!" "Get off my back!" "Why dont you just let me officiate the game?" Youve just opened the door for an equally crass retort: "I would let you if you had any brains!" See, you cant get to first base with snappy comebacks. There is no comeback thatll do you a service. The game isnt being played for one-upmanship on your part. You have to subvert and subdue your natural impulses.

There are several other things to keep in mind about verbal judo. One, the same principles can apply in your personal life. When a conflict arises, try soft responses and paraphrasing as ways of seeking resolution. Thompson offers several examples in his book on how relationships with colleagues and family can benefit from reflective and judicious responding.

He also points out that verbal judo is useful in situations where you have a path that youd like people to follow at work or in your association. Say that you want to change procedures for assigning or for training veterans. "The moment you try to persuade others to move in concert with you, you have invited disagreement," says Thompson. "You have to develop a perspective that allows you to be at ease during a confrontation, to welcome antagonism. You have to learn to deflect criticism and to let tormenting words pass over."

Fjelstad, vice president of the Verbal Judo Institute, cites the increasing presence of spectators and other peripheral people at a ballgame and says, "Booing by the crowd may be culturally acceptable, but now theyre (often confronting officials) to seek redress. The verbal judo expert will use deflectors, because one of the malfunctioning elements of society is bent on exacting revenge. The professional has to stay serene to accept verbal abuse . He can be a responder rather than a reactor."

He adds, "When peoples objections are ignored, that makes them all the more incensed." Tuning out a complaining coach may be the same as inciting him.

Thompsons book concludes with some useful slogans: "Flexibility equals strength; rigidity equals weakness. Be like the willow tree that bends in the heaviest storm but does not break (an ancient samurai principle)." "The less ego you show, the more power you have over others." "It takes a healthy ego to be a leader." "When your mouth opens, your ears slam shut." "Common sense is most uncommon under pressure." "(People) know that if they can get under your skin, theyre going to own you."

If you accept those maxims youre on your way to making verbal judo work for you.


Copyright 1997-2004 Verbal Judo Institute, Inc. Dr. George J. Thompson, President and Founder.