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How Aikido helps you diffuse team conflict

Luke Szyrmer March 16, 2021 284 1

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My name is Lukasz Szyrmer. If you are new here, I am the author of the book Align Remotely. I help teams thrive and achieve more together when working remotely. Find out more at alignremotely.com. In this episode of the Managing Remote Teams podcast, we explore how the principles and mindset in Japanese martial art-Aikido. It can be used to diffuse team conflict within an organization. This metaphor of keeping using an attacker’s strength against themselves, while driving to an acceptable resolution scales well to all levels of a company.

Upon listening, you will discover:

  • How to harness team conflict and convert it into a productive creative tension
  • How honesty about your needs can actually be a major source of strength in a team conflict
  • Why your biggest challenge is creating trust despite opposing interests

About Przemek Gawronski

team conflict
Prezek Gawronski on resolving team conflict

Przemek is both a 5th degree black belt aikido teacher and an executive coach, senior leadership consultant, experienced change facilitator. He holds an MA in applied social psychology. He supports organizations in change processes on individual, team and system’s levels. Besides consulting Przemek runs his own dojo (practice hall) with over a hundred active practitioners. With over 30 years of aikido and meditation experience he brings authenticity, depth and calmness to his work. Aikido’s philosophy and methodology has hugely impacted Przemek’s unique approach to facilitation, personal growth, communication, conflict transformation and stress management.

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    How Aikido helps you diffuse team conflict
    Luke Szyrmer


I was surprised by the physicality Przemek needs to help understand team conflict, and how that presumably is hard to translate in a remote work world.

From a practical perspective, this whole idea of pinch theory was useful. It gives you a visceral way to figure out if there are any team conflicts which you are avoiding. Therefore it’s easier to diagnose why your team is underperforming.


So Przemek Gawronski, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you for having me here.

So can you tell us a little bit about aikido and how you got into it?

I started IQ dot, particularly IQ in 1988. I practiced several other martial arts or your, that there was always something missing and the philosophy and the kindness and respect to the other party was a very important part. Why I stuck to it though?

And the atmosphere where you don’t have competition. There’s only one person you compete with and that’s yourself. You want to be better than you were yesterday and you don’t compete with a colleague that you practice or somebody else from a different dojo because this is your personal path and there’s only one right path for you.

Using Aikido to resolve team conflict

You’d take aikido as a lens in the context of consulting for organizations. How did you get into that part of it?

I knew that there’s some major lessons in Ikea approach to people interacting as if we think of energy and like kidos principle one of the principles and is that if you come at me with energy, I don’t want to I don’t want anything to happen to me, but ideally I will disarm you without anything, making sure that nothing also happens to you.

And so this requires a certain attitude to literally blend with the energy that is coming at you and to lead it, but to do it efficiently, I have to really look. At the same direction as the source of the energy. So I have to approach, reduce the distance shift and turn around and see exactly the same direction as the other parts he was looking to lead it and to blend it, not to fight with it.

And this is a metaphor that is very often used in conflict management to see from other person’s perspective and to see their point of view, get to understand that share, then maybe share your point of view because if somebody, if I make space for you to show your perspective, that creates an opening that you might just be willing to also listen and look, and be curious, in my perspective, if I’m curiously enough in your perspective.

Aikido teaches you to blend with energy, but to do that, you have to look at the person at the situation, from the point of view of the attacker, we call him the hooker. But literally as the person that brings in attack so I can practice with it. So I went to coaching and then I went into consulting about conflict management and leadership which both of those topics are in roots of literally any martial arts leadership.

Every sensei is a leader for his group. And interestingly it usually, and that’s people even pay to being taught and actually being given a hard time. So that really is an interesting case that there is, there, there has to be something really valuable for them in it that they come, they get a hard time and they even pay for it.

This approach to conflict is, as I mentioned earlier, is pretty unique. We emphasize me not getting hurt or getting what I want, but also the other party. So finding a consensus or some kind of creative tension that creates something new that has beneficial for all interested all stakeholders.

So we brought that into the business setup where people can actually physically experience what it is to be intention. With energy, what it feels to let go and blend and lead somewhere and what’s then possible. And they really quickly realized that there’s some elements that they physiologically experience during this these exercises.

And there’s lots of metaphors to build on that. But then we’re talking about not about some cognitive concept about conflict, how we should approach it or not, but their first person experience about the tension. If I want to go this way and you want to go this way, what’s the experience and we’re struggling here.

And if they put a lot of force into it, if I put more force, the other party will put even more force and it’s just to push back and forth, push back and forth, and no movement is being done. We’re not getting anywhere. So w once the participants experienced this, we can talk not about how things should be on cognitive level and concepts and models, but their personal experience. And that changes the conversation really quickly.

How team conflict affects what happens in a company

So with the conflicts that exists, let’s say within an organization, are the conflicts in the organization, what defines, what goes on in a company, or how do you think about that?

That’s a very good question because a lot of companies have a hard time acknowledging, did they even have, or experienced conflicts with them? And if if somebody tells me that, Oh no, we don’t need this kind of work. We don’t have conflicts in our organization. And that means that it’s shuffled under the bed and they’re just not acknowledging it because conflict, they probably they think of a conflict of an argument and a fight.

But speaking openly about how people feel, how they are and what their interests and what are their needs and feeling free to do that has to create a conflict situation in the sense that people have different needs. But do we have the space to talk about it and how do we handle that? And if somebody says that we don’t have conflicts, that means that they’re just not creating space for people to freely speak and speak.

And we could probably categorize organizations based on how they’re, what are the strategies and waters, their approach to. To conflict. What is the norm, how do they solve the conflict? How do they try to approach it? Is there room for it or we don’t even the come always that we have that.

So is it just more of a spectrum? Are there more distinct groups of approaches companies stake?

I would say it is a spectrum and to engage in a conflict situation when we have different perspectives is also an opening and showing up a vulnerable and that that builds based on that, that I feel comfortable.

I can bring in another perspective that I know might not be right away welcomed from anybody else or everybody. But I do feel safe to bring it in that creates. , that’s the source of creativity. Also in organizations that people fight, feel safe to bring something that might not be popular or might not be easy.

But also the normal language norm is a, is an interesting aspect because in some organizations they won’t even allow the word of conflict that the roots and the definition of a conflict is that when people start they have different interests or even opposing interests and take action to succeed in reaching those interests.

Przemek’s approach to resolving team conflict

So when you go into a company is a lot of the work just around giving them the language and the physical sense of what the conflict is doing, or like, how do you typically work with companies and helps them?

Our work mainly or focuses around Pretty deep personal development.

And to, for this to happen, we have to build an atmosphere of trust and psychological safety for the people to show up because we all we all show up for different roles and that’s what we’re responsible. That’s where we are hired for to do certain jobs and require a certain skill, some different positions.

But then we know we’re all judged by that. And if we don’t feel safe that I might not have to be perfect in everything. And I might have to show that I have some still development to be done. It, you can’t really work progress in any way. In one of our last workshops we had A CEO from a fairly big international organization.

And he is senior is now I think, 54, 55. He had dozens and dozens leadership development programs and trainings and management skills development, etc. There was one very simple rule there. You have to show up the best you can, because if you show any vulnerability at whoever of your colleagues, that it was on this training with you one day or another, he’ll use it against you.

And so they only showed up in those trainings to show how big and strong and good they are instead of really thinking, okay, what I can really develop to become better than I was yesterday.

Yeah. Macho culture.


It was a really turnaround for him because our work is being honest with himself and he realized that he’s not really thinking about what he really wants, what he can develop, but what he has to show out there in the world to be seen as the best.

When he realized that the strength of being honest, the strength of saying, I don’t know the strength of I need help. Would you be willing to help me with this? His situation in work dramatically changed. He decided actually to give up on the company, he said he wasted enough time in this organization and he decided to move to a different place.

And he said that being honest with himself and being able to share that with the world. And be consistent is for him much more important than than the status of being a CEO of in a international organization in Eastern Europe.

Yeah. Yeah. Interesting.

Just to add to that, his so to create this kind of space that people are willing to ask themselves questions that sometimes they would not even ask themselves is probably the key element.

So creating this kind of unconditional acceptance and for people to risk and say, okay, yeah, I might benefit if I, every once in a while have the courage to say I need help, or I need some support.

How middle management compares to senior management

What’s the difference in how middle management and senior I see conflict within a company?

So for instance, middle management is eh, easily. I think th that they have one of the toughest jobs in, in an organization because one side they’re in the pressure between the top management. And then the people there that are below and with whoever they’re talking, they’re always perceived as the representative of the other party.

Yeah. So they’re the man in the middle and they really do have a challenging situation because the frontline workers, whatever the org chart is when they talk to their manager and they think that very often that the manager represents the managing board or something, or top management.

When the middle manager talks to anybody that is above them to their superior, they’re represent the frontliners. So they’re always caught in between. So that’s a tough one. And then top management they usually report maybe to the stakeholders or something, but they, they don’t have anybody directly above them. So it’s a different conversation. I don’t want to make it too simplistic.

That’s useful actually.

In my consulting work, I usually work with the senior leadership team or the managing board or the, of the top executives. And so that’s why I know that they see, they perceive the middle management as the representative of the population of the company.

Case Study: resolving marketing team conflict due to M&A

Can you Describe a particular case of how taking your approach like an Ikea approach and how it helps a particular company?

We had a company one of the top players of it company on the market and they were acquiring two other companies and it were somewhat smaller, but in total was over 2000 people. And they knew that they’re going to have to go through a major restructuring which restructure has many connotations.

And if you tell in a company native, we’re going to go through a restructuring process at what w what they hear is okay. Layoffs there’s no beautiful ending to the story in the sense that everybody was happy ever after. But the process that we used was to engage everybody in this and make it as, as clear and as possible that yes, the company will go through a restructuring process is the layoffs will be happening, but we created space where people can open, only talk about it and and shared their frustration, their fear, and and work out the process.

What will be the best. For the company and it turned out that for instance, E we had three different marketing directors and they knew that after one year, because of the whole process, was that after the design, that by one of the big four consulting companies when they got invited, we already worked with the company with their leadership team and the CEO said, okay, you’re going to help us restructure, but you have to work with these guys.

And it was us. So that’s where we coined the term that the big four companies come in and change the chart. And we come in and change the heart. So because they worked 99%. Their work was above the waterline. What should be the new structure? What should be the numbers that departments, the silos, et cetera.

And we were leading people through this process. What often happens is that in a big change initiatives like this, the managing board goes through the whole changing process from grief denial, to gradual acceptance, and finally being on board to go forward and it takes time.

And then they announced it to the company that this is how things are going to happen. Several hundred or thousands of people, they’re just going to go through this process overnight. Like this, it doesn’t work this way. They have to be given space. going back to this this example.

Yes, within the year 800 people that leave the company, nobody sued the company. Everybody knew what’s really happening. Take their, took their time. And those, this example of those three marketing directors, they worked out how to later select the best person to continue to work. As the marketing director, they all were invited into the conversation, how this process should look like nobody told them that it’s going to be like this.

They said, okay, you have to make a decision. How do you think this should be done the best for the company? So they actually, what they came up is they they said that eventually, maybe none of us will be the one because maybe somebody from outside should be invited. From your skill set and et cetera.

So they they created list of qualities and skills that should be there. And they outsource the process to external company, which they applied for this process as well, anonymously. So nobody could really recognize who they who they’re judging, who their, who is the test item.

Luckily one of them actually won the process and took over and led the company later. But none of them went out of this process with with grudging and blaming and et cetera, because they all worked out the process, how it should be, but created that to create that required, gaining their trust for some, because first then the day, they were convinced that they have the impact, how this process will, will.

Go through and and be able to speak really openly and trusting each other, that this is for the benefit of the company, which I think was the biggest challenge is creating trust. Although our interests might be opposing.

Why this approach to team conflict works well

Just to loop back to the kind of Ikea approach of when there were conflicts amongst them during this how did that help?

Okay yeah, so thank you. So going back to it though, the first principle is to get off the line of the attack, turn around and look at the same direction.

So the first element was to during conversations to really get to understand the other person that is speaking like a neutral anthropologist, who when he’s digging up stuff, he’s not judging. In the sense he was just curious. Oh, that’s interesting. Oh, that’s interesting. Oh, that’s interesting. And not, Oh, this is bad. I’m not going to, Oh this piece here I found is bad. I’m not going to touch it. Everything was valuable. That’s one thing to be curious, and to give them the tools to talk about sensitive issues with having the ownership of their experience and their understanding of it, that this is theirs and not not trying to be enforcing the, this is the truth about something.

this also touches a little bit about nonviolent communication or emphatic communication, where you have the ownership of your experience and your fantasies, or your interpretations about something. But this is yours. You’re not saying that this is how things are, and you’re saying how you perceive things and what it is for you.

And with this it’s much easier then to come to a common understanding how to work out something valuable for all sides.

Just to add to that from Ikea perspective, there are two to two, I think important things is first as a person that is receiving some kind of energy. And if I have a goal, I want to go the opposite direction. That’s possible. So I can do it in two ways. First I’ll have more resources, more energy to overcome it and force the incoming energy and push over.

Or I can decide to come with it and blend and lead it somewhere. I have to take a risk and that eventually I might not go exactly this the way I want it, because the outcome might lead somewhere different. But I’m willing to try and see what’s going to happen.

Blend with the energy, whichever direction is going and not stop it, because if you’re going to say no, stop, this is wrong. You’re gonna you’re going to experience even more energy coming at you because somebody’s going to right away say, what do you mean I’m wrong?

I’m going to show you. I’m right.

Push harder.

Yeah, exactly.

Working with team conflict under lockdown

What have you observed over the last year? How things changed under lockdown and in the companies that you’re working with?

I really miss being in contact with people. When we come to work with an organization and a lot of our work is based on them, then the participants to experience something. And part of it is also just normal human touch. And I already feel the difference when they grab a hand of a different person. You can imagine that when you shake hand, now it’s not a legitimate appropriate. You have to go like this, but if you’re, it doesn’t affect it. Yes. You see the difference, how people will shake your hand. And that’s already transmitting some kind of information, energy, and people miss that.

What I see now going bit out of our work is what people are really missing is a non-formal time together where eventually a lot of things are getting done. A lot of agreements, a lot of ideas shared. So people are missing this kind of time together. It’s not necessarily small talk, sometimes it is. But if you’re in a meeting and if you’re with a colleague and you have an idea and you’ll say, okay let’s just grab it go to the coffee, shop together. And if you have two or three minutes to talk and then you’ll go and share the idea. Now you have to make an arrangement in calendar for a particular time. And to and people are just sick of sitting in front of the computer talking, and it’s hard to imagine for them to just relax.

And a lot of things are done behind the scenes in this matter, shared ideas and brainstorming and people will not Call for a meeting for this. And so I think this is a big struggle for a lot of organizations and bodies inside their organization, that they don’t have this kind of time to talk about, to go for lunch together, to talk informally and get to understand each other better or for a coffee after a meeting, or even just walking down the corridor after a meeting just two or three minutes sometimes. Does that, does the job?

Virtual team building tip from Przemek

given your background in conflict resolution, what would be some good, virtual team building tips that you might have?


Cause it’s not about technology, I would assume.

No. Then technology is here. Technology is fabulous. And it’s just of course it’s a dramatic thing that we’re experiencing COVID and lockdown, et cetera.

But if we, if this would happen 10 years ago I’m really curious how humans would deal with it. Now we can really do a lot of work online and to, through sort of video conferencing and et cetera, and 10 years or 15 years ago. Wow. That would be really traumatic,

There, there are different ways of getting people involved making feel, make them feel relaxed and make something funny on one of the workshops.

I remember that the facilitator said, okay I know we, we all, we encourage you to use the camera to have the camera on. We don’t want to look fatigued or Somehow unprepared. So let’s just everybody come closer to the camera and now correct how you look in front of the camera. And this was like 20 people and nobody knew each other.

And after just those 15 seconds of correcting hair, making makeup and et cetera, everybody was already laughing and relaxing because seeing everybody doing it at the same time was right. Just great experience. And everybody was already relaxed. Yeah. So there are techniques to create this this new normal, relaxed atmosphere within that, within the setup of a team.

How to get started with resolving team conflicts

What about what about teams that are experiencing conflicts? Now under, under remote conditions, are there any particular things that you think would be helpful or tips or anything like that?

There’s this whole theory, what we call the pinch theory and if if we don’t, if we don’t respond to pinches in the open and curious way, we will eventually experience crunches and from crunches, there’s no easy way out. And we could do the whole, a whole webinar on that on the pinch theory, which might be interesting at some point.

But we can create a diagram where about. Literally any relationship you’re in, you can find yourself somewhere in this diagram. And what we often do is we don’t respond to two little pinches because it’s not a big deal. I don’t want to come across as a picky person. He probably didn’t mean it and we’re all masters in holding ourselves back when something is a bit uncomfortable for us.

The thing is that the other person sometimes doesn’t even realize that it’s creating a pinch after pinch, but with each next pinch, the weight on the scale is slightly more until it tips over. Then we have a crunch, but then we have a whole baggage of BS behind us that that is connected to this other person.

And then it’s very difficult. And usually it requires a third party to participate, to mediate or to lead a conversation between two people. Because if we have if your blood pressure goes above 120 in the blood that is pumped into your head is not really going to your cortex or which is responsive for logical thinking, it’s going to your amygdala fight flight or freeze.

We stopped really rational thinking. Of course, nobody is aware of that. We all think that even in the most tense moment, we are very rational and logical, sorry to bring it to people that’s not true. If people are in a conflict and one of them is not really skilled in, in leading a conflict to a transformative or in creative solution. It’s really good to just ask somebody to facilitate a conversation and agree on the rules of the conversation.

And it’s it’s with virtual teams, it’s it might be easier might be more difficult, depends on the particular team or particular case. But we usually don’t do that because we feel. First of all, usually you feel that if we ask somebody for help, that means I’m incompetent and that is not true.

If I’m of one of the sides in the conflict, and I have interests it’s really natural that it’s very difficult to easily and freely see the other person’s approach or needs, unless I’m a skilled person in this kind of dialogue. So it’s really good to just ask somebody for help with some can you spend with us 15, 20, 30 minutes, whatever, and lead our conversation so we can really connect better and share our points of view.

And I know that if I get if the stakes get high enough, I also get emotional and it’s just cheating myself saying that I’m above that. I can be calm as a stone always. Now. That’s not true if somebody believes that he really is cheating himself. So asking for help actually shows your humbleness and your awareness and not the opposite. And very often it’s perceived the opposite that is showing your weaknesses.

Contacting Przemek

Where do people find out more about what you do? Thank you. So as for it, don’t please take a look at our webpage or Facebook. I ponder on dojo. Or just on that, I’m that PO and as for consulting work, it’s nextmove.consulting. So if anybody’s interested in exploring more or creating developing their team, moving their team to the next level give us give us a call or give us a mail shout and we’ll respond and be more than thrilled.I’m happy to go for an adventure with you to develop the teams, to become more engaged and more authentic and eventually much more productive.

Great. Thank you.

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