1 Big idea to think about

  • If you let other people’s negative emotions cause you to react, you let those negative emotions control you. If you learn how to navigate and redirect that energy towards a positive outcome, you learn to control that situation.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Consider using a “strip phase” (e.g. ‘ppreciate and understan’) to deescalate a situation of its power. 
  • Redirect the conversation to what you want instead

3 Questions to ask

  • How do I react when someone or something triggers me?
  • What has the outcome of this behavior been?
  • What strategy do I want to use to respond to a conflict instead of react?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • A lesson in verbal Judo (1:49)
  • Learning to redirect energy towards a positive outcome (6:48)
  • Using verbal Judo to de-escalate confrontations (12:00)
  • How to use “strip phrases” to de-escalate a situation (17:44)
  • How to redirect a situation to what you want instead (21:13)
  • Applying these tactics to your professional and personal life (22:41)

Links You’ll Love from the Episode

George Thompson and Verbal Judo

Greg McKeown (00:01):

Welcome. I’m Greg McKeown. And this is just the third episode of the newly minted Greg McKeown podcast. And I am with you on this journey to learn how to negotiate with the people who matter most to you. When was the last time someone said or did something that triggered you? How did you feel frustrated, angry, unsafe? What did you say? The chances are you reacted in one of two ways, either by shutting down, avoiding the conflict, or by saying something defensive back, cause conflict begets conflict. Today, I’m going to share a story, some things I am learning and leave you with a specific action you can take right now to be able to respond rather than to react to the conflict in your most important relationships. By the end of this episode, you will be able to use your words to redirect the negative force of others towards a positive outcome. Let’s get to it.

Greg McKeown (01:31):

If you want to learn the ideas in this episode faster and put them to work more effectively, then teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours of listening, will you do that? It was the most outrageous way to break up a fight he’d ever seen. He’d been a rookie cop just 10 days. When his partner got the call at 2:00 AM. They were dispatched to break up a nasty domestic dispute in a tenement on the east side of Emporia, Kansas. It’s notorious for drug dealing and random violence. They could hear the couple’s vicious mouth to mouth combat from the street. His training Sergeant and partner was Bruce Faire. They went together approaching the house, peeking through the half open door. The trainee cop is George Thompson. He’s a middle-aged jock at this time with a chip on his shoulder, hot temper with a short fuse, someone who looked out for himself, he wanted to win all arguments all, and he’s in a rather unimaginable situation.

Greg McKeown (02:47):

Bruce, his partner just walked in without bothering to knock. Bruce picks up a newspaper, thumbs through the classifieds of all things. George meanwhile is leaning against the door with his hand on the butt of his 357 revolver. George is flabbergasted. Bruce has seemed to violate all of the rules of police procedure. His training officer has walked into the house without identifying himself without asking permission or without at least saying why he’s there. And there he is just treating an angry couple in the tenant’s apartment as if he’s some visiting uncle. His partner keeps on reading as the couple keeps arguing occasionally glancing at this newfound cop on their couch. They weren’t even noticing George. As the man cursed at his wife, Bruce rattled, the newspaper, “Folks, folks, excuse me. Over here.” The startled husband flashed a double take. “What are you doing here?” And Bruce responds.

Greg McKeown (03:55):

“You’ve got a phone? Look here. A 1950 Dodge cherry condition. Can I borrow your phone? I know it’s late, but I don’t want to miss out on this. Where’s your phone. I need to call right now.” The husband pointed to the phone incredulous, Bruce Rose and dialed then mumbled into the phone. He slammed it down. “Can you believe they wouldn’t talk to me just because it’s two in the morning?” By now, the fight had evaporated. The couple standing there as dumbfounded as George was. “By the way,” Bruce said pleasantly as if just becoming aware, “Is anything that matter here, anything my partner and I can do for you?” The husband and wife looked at the floor and shook their heads. “Not really, no.” They chatted together for a bit reminding them that it was late and that everyone around would appreciate a little piece and quiet. And soon this trainer and his new found 35 year old copper on their way.

Greg McKeown (04:54):

George was really puzzled. Earlier that night, they had broken up a similar dispute in the classic cop fashion. They’d quickly taken control with polite authority performed. What’s known as a separate and suture where the waring parties are separated, calmed down and then brought back together. They had diffused that situation. That’s the way that George had been trained. So what was this new twist? I mean, here he is this former college English professor who had taught Milton and Shakespeare for 10 years. I mean, he’d seen some ingenious twists of plot, but a cop taming, two waring animals by intruding as a rude but friendly guest. Bruce had forced those two people to play host to him, whether or not they wanted to. As soon as they were out into the squad car again, he asked, “What in the world was all that about? Why did we separate and suture earlier and pull this crazy newspaper and telephone gag just now?” He shrugged.

Greg McKeown (05:54):

“I don’t know. I’ve been on the street more than 10 years. You just learn? “Hey,” said George, “I may be new at this, but I’m no kid. I, I, I haven’t got 10 years. I could get blown away. If I tried that stunt, we need to talk, tell me how you knew you could get away with that.” George didn’t realize it then, but that evening marked the birth of what he came to call verbal judo. And it was the first lesson in his career as what he started to think of as a communication samurai. He had studied martial arts started with genuine Native American wrestling since he was six years old and he’s held black belts in judo, in Taekwondo and karate, but he had never seen such principles. So effectively applied to life on the streets. Here’s the point. If you let other people’s negative emotions cause you to react, you let those negative emotions control you.

Greg McKeown (07:00):

If you learn how to navigate and redirect that energy towards a positive outcome, you learn to control that situation. As George Thompson writes elsewhere, he says A samurai warfare state of mind called Mushin is defined as the still center or the ability to stay calm, read your opponent and attempt to redirect his aggression in a more positive way. If you cannot keep a still center, you cannot stay in control of yourself or the situation. The Mushin state underlies, both physical judo and verbal judo, a mind mouth harmony. If you will. The English word closest to the idea of Mushin is disinterested. By the way is not the same as being uninterested. It’s just that you are not so fixated. And so hyperactivated triggered. George goes on. I was never taught to deal with people who insulted me. I responded with natural defensive ways which caused confrontation.

Greg McKeown (08:10):

I thought confrontation was the point. Now I know that a studied response of reflection and redirection is the answer. I discovered it. He continues. In my study of ancient warfare in an old samurai text, translated from the Japanese an ancient master was quoted “When man throws spear of insult at head, move head. Spear, miss, target, leave, man, empty handed spear in wall, not in you.” What about you? When was the last time someone said or did something that triggered you? Maybe the other person was triggered themselves. Maybe they were highly emotional. They’re striking out. They’re using words that are like Spears, like javelins coming at you and you are in the way. How do you feel frustrated, defensive? What did you say when they did this? Perhaps you reacted instead of responded. I’ve done that by the way today, more than once. What are the results?

Greg McKeown (09:19):

If you withdraw yourself, then the distance grows. If you respond in a hotheaded manner, the first words that come to your mouth, then you escalate the conflict and that conflict forgets conflict. Again, the point: when a person throws a spear of insult at your head, move your head. When you’re dealing with highly emotional situations, the key is not to try and take it on head first, fight two bulls coming together. The key is to find a way and that’s what verbal judo is all about is to encourage the other person to voluntarily choose to cooperate. As I think about the extraordinary work that George Thompson did before he passed away, introducing these ideas into police forces all over the world. And from there into many, many other industries, it reminds me of the origin of the modern police force. Like policing hasn’t existed forever in the form that we have come to know it. Early in the 19th century in Britain, there were attempts by the government to set up a police force in London, but lots of people were opposing it.

Greg McKeown (10:41):

You can imagine people being suspicious of a large and possibly armed police force. People thought that it would be used, could be used to suppress protest, but the prime minister at the time, Sir Robert Peel came to organize what is largely considered the first modern police force. It was the metropolitan police officers who were referred to, and sometimes even to this day, as Bobby’s after sir Robert Bobby Peel. I never knew the reason for that until doing this research. When he decided to try to create this police force, he did it with a series of principles. There are nine in total. I won’t go through all of them, but they are referred to as the Peelian principles. And let me just summarize three of them first, whether the police or effective, he argued is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime. Two, the key to preventing crime is earning public support. And three above all else.

Greg McKeown (11:49):

An effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount. Hence Peel’s most often quoted principle that the police are the public and the public are the police. The term verbal judo was brought to my attention by a retired police officer. He spent his whole life, an entire career helping, trying to help in incredibly intense, emotionally charged situations. Just some of the stories he has shared make you want to weep for the misery, that in some ways has become so normalized in our generation, but he learned over time that there was a way to use the tone of his voice, the pace of his voice, use of body language in such a way as to deescalate, even the most outrageous situations, he was called out to one domestic situation. The husband and wife are at each other’s throats, but there wasn’t a crime. So they couldn’t permanently resolve this situation.

Greg McKeown (12:58):

If they suddenly just left, then they were confident they would receive another phone call, another complaint from the neighbors. By the time my friend Mike appeared on the scene, there were already SWAT officers, muscular, heavy handed, seriously trying to apply authority to solve the problem. You go over here, you will go over there. But it wasn’t working. He was refusing to leave and there was no crime. So they couldn’t just physically remove him. And they shared this concern with Mike. They said, we can’t get him out of here. And the wife, well, she has the keys to the vehicles and she won’t give us the keys. We’re trying to get one set of car keys so that he can take them and leave and we can separate them and move forward.

Greg McKeown (13:48):

Mike said, these police officers were macho muscle bound officers. And they were thinking that way too. So I asked to talk to them privately, really calmly. He said, “Can I just visit with you for a few minutes?” to the wife. She said, yes. He treated her like an equal. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on here?” “Oh, he’s a terrible guy.” Everything about this, man. He responded, nobody should be treated that way. Nobody. He listened to for the next 10 or 15 minutes. He wasn’t barking orders. He wasn’t being heavy with his badge. And slowly as she calmed down, he said, look, we just really want to help him to get out of here. We don’t have a crime to arrest him on. So we can’t make that happen. And after she’d vented, after she had expunged all of that noise inside of her, she just said, look, here are keys to one of the vehicles.

Greg McKeown (14:46):

It’s not rocket science,” Mike said, but it worked. Mike went on to become so effective at applying these ideas, this verbal judo that he built a reputation as someone who could help people to voluntarily give confessions so that they could close a case and help people to move on. He became known as Father Mike. And you can imagine that image. It’s not perhaps the typical image you imagine, as you think of a police officer, but father Mike. He was using empathy in a tactical powerful way, and he’s not faking it. Either. Mike is open about this. I’m not speaking out of school. When I say that he has serious and real challenges within his own family over many years. And so when he is working with people out on the street, when he was working with people who were behaving, let’s say in an uncivilized manner and sometimes extremely so.

Greg McKeown (15:48):

He could say to them, sincerely I’m, I’m not judging you. I get it. If you saw my own home, you’d understand. I, I know where you’re coming from. He was able to redirect the negative energy towards something that looked like a positive result. And he did it again and again. So now let’s come back to the questions I asked at the beginning, but with a bit of a twist, are you feeling triggered right now by something someone has said to you? Do you have an unresolved personal conflict right now? And what could you do to use this verbal judo in your next interaction with them? Back to George Thompson. He said recently “I was driving in my office to Albuquerque. When a kid who looked to be about 17 drove past me as I entered the parking lot and just missed side swiping my new pickup, I was furious.

Greg McKeown (16:43):

When he got out of the car, I growled him. Where’d you learn to drive? He looked at me calmly and announced Texas. Then he disappeared. By the time I got into my office, by the time I got into my office, I realized I’d met an unconscious competent. He was a master of verbal judo, and didn’t even know it. He had stopped me with one word. Had he turned on me and matched my tone with a what’s it to you we’d have been in a shouting match. And who knows what else? Three times his age, twice his size trained in martial arts and police tactics, I could have seriously injured him and ruined my own life, but he hadn’t even appeared upset when I yelled at him. Not only did he not seem to mind the attack, but he also appeared to enjoy it.” Now that’s verbal judo because you’re not trying to fight the issue that’s being raised.

Greg McKeown (17:40):

You’re trying to redirect back to what it is that you are trying to achieve. Let me suggest two tactics that George Thompson suggests we can do the first one. I’m not so sure about. He calls it strip phases. One night early in his career, he stopped a pickup truck filled with angry drunken Cowboys, after a rodeo. The driver who appeared to be twice, his size was in his face, calling him all sorts of names. He asked to see his driver’s license and he responded with a bunch of curses almost without thinking George Thompson said, well, ‘ppreciate that, sir, but I need to see your license. He kind of laughed him off, but the man produced his license later. It struck George that his colloquial use of the word ‘ppreciate was the key. Of course it had been nonsense. This man had impugned his ancestry and cast aspersions on his manhood.

Greg McKeown (18:38):

He said he appreciated it. Think about that. He was figuratively moving his head. So the spear of insult clattered past him and he used the abbreviated version of the word because of course he did not appreciate being called those names. He could certainly appreciate where he was coming from because he was empathizing and trying to work with him. So he used ‘ppreciate, and that’s what he went on to call a strip phrase, a deflector that strips the insult of its power in the martial arts. People are taught to deflect punches, but not hard. If you block hard, then you push the antagonist away. And that gives them more time to recover and possibly even pull a weapon out. When a person throws a fist at your face, you want to move your face slightly at the very last instant, allowing their fist to just graze the top of your head, then strike back because they’re in close proximity.

Greg McKeown (19:41):

This strip phrase deflector of this loud mouth cowboy was the same thing. Soon, he developed other strip phrases, simple shortened versions of calm answers. The next time a subject tried to humiliate him. He said, I understan’ that, but listen to me, I need your driver’s license. Again, to rationalize the absurdity of his statement in his own mind, he didn’t use the whole real word. Understand, just understand he left the last letter off. And that somehow allowed him to tell someone that what they were calling you and that allowed him to tell people who were calling him every name in the book. I understan’ that. Then he made up another one. He responded to every insult with. Oh yes. And soon he found that if he combined the strip phrases, they work even better. A person would start with you no good blankly blank of a cop.

Greg McKeown (20:37):

And he’d say ‘ppreciate that. Oh yes. Understan’ that, sir. But let me see your license, please. As crazy as it sounds, it worked. And not only that he’s observed that great communicators who are diffusing situations often do the same thing. I hear you, sir. But, or I got that ma’am. He even has found that other great communicators have developed their own version of these strip phrases. These strip phrases, deflect the insults coming at you and allow you to focus on what you’re doing. If you combine that tactic with number two, that is to redirect to what you want instead that is don’t focus on the spear, focus on what you want. Instead. Deflectors serve as what he thinks of as springboard focused techniques, the strip phrases springboard you over all the insults that might otherwise have allowed the other person, whether that’s some speed or on the highway or an employee, an angry child, a complaining customer to defeat you.

Greg McKeown (21:46):

And after you’ve spring boarded out of that, you get to use something called Thomas Laws of the Street, which can be applied everywhere after the word, but use only words that serve your professional purpose. Understand that, sir, but I need to see your driver’s license. Appreciate that, but I need to see some identification. Everything after the but is designed to get the job done. The idea is to let the person say what they want, as long as they do what you say. The idea is, let them chip at you all day long, as long as they’re cooperating with you. What do you care what they say? Your attitude should be say what you want, but do, as I say, it explains again, back to policing. Look, you can give the citizen the last word because you have the last action. Now I know that in this episode, we’ve talked a lot about policing and that’s for a purpose because first of all, if it can work in these extreme scenarios, surely it can work in the kind of highly emotional situations we find ourselves in on a day to day basis.

Greg McKeown (22:55):

But it’s also because it’s leadership. How are we doing in our own leadership on our teams? Are we applying the Peelian principles in my home? Am I using Peelian principles? Am I using verbal judo to sidestep a volatile situation, to be able to use words in a way that deescalate the situation, that help us to be able to win the war, which is the relationship itself, not win this battle right now through force through hierarchy in my team and my organization you’ll do it because I say so, you’ll do it because you work for me. You do it because I pay you. I mean, these are a certain approach to leadership. And the problem primarily with them is even if it gets you someone to do a thing right now, sometimes it comes at a much greater cost later.

Greg McKeown (24:06):

Maybe in the process you damage the relationship. Of course you will. Maybe the damaging of that relationship damages your reputation with the team as a whole. Maybe your boss now is involved. Maybe you have an altercation with your spouse and your children. They weren’t the ones that were actually involved, but now they feel less trust, less safety. So these principles that we’ve talked about here can be applied directly and immediately. Why don’t you try to use redirection immediately in your own life. The very next time you feel triggered. See if you can’t move your head just outta the way. So the spear doesn’t hit you. So you’re not having to try to defend it directly and make it as if it’s vitally important that you defend every possible accusation. Let it fly right past you. Maybe you can try using these strip phrases and combine them with a redirection to the thing you really want.

Greg McKeown (25:11):

I’m certainly going to try it and I’ll report back and let you know how it goes. So the next time you’re triggered by something. Someone says you can use some verbal judo, some negotiation jujitsu, as it’s been described elsewhere, to move out of the way of the insult, to not give energy to what is said that you disagree with. To not be distracted by the insults and to come back to what you really want. To what’s really essential. Thank you for listening to this episode, three of the Greg McKeown podcast, a reminder to go and teach this to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. You don’t have to share the whole thing, but share a little bit with them. And if you want to have talking points to go on, sign up for the 1-Minute Wednesday newsletter, because that’s how you’ll be able to get access to the show notes that accompany every one of these episodes.

Greg McKeown (26:08):

If you go to gregmckeown.com/1MW you’ll be able to sign up for the newsletter. Also, if you found this episode specifically to be useful, valuable to you, please take a minute to write your review on apple iTunes. The first five people that do that for this episode and who send to me at info@gregmckeown.com a picture of their review along with their address will receive a signed copy of Effortless. Now, a final though for you brought to you by Sun Tzu, he said, “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.” I look forward to being with you again on the next episode of the Greg McKeown podcast.