“Aikidation” (The Peaceful Martial Art of Mediation) by Ben J. Cunningham

The roles of mediators are varied and numerous: In the course and context of a single mediation session we might act as facilitators, counselors, conciliators, teachers, referees, diplomats, sages, idea generators, evaluators, moderators, negotiators, crisis intervention experts, detectives and psychologists, all while remaining an unbiased neutral in the dispute. The mediator is charged with the responsibility of providing a process and forum to resolve, manage, or transform conflicts. The profession of a mediator is not easily learned, nor is it easy once learned, and despite years of never-ending training and experience the mediator, no matter the skill level, strives continually (or rather, should strive continually) for and toward mastery. While training is critical and necessary, all the training in the world is only as good as our ability to incorporate what we learn theoretically into practical application based on our individual styles, experience, and personalities, coupled with the specific dynamics of the matter with which a mediator is dealing.

Mediators are “peacemakers,” but that word often and inaccurately connotes passivity. The effective peacemaker is anything but passive; an effective “peacemaker” is not averse to conflict—to the contrary, the most effective mediators and conflict managers must learn to enter into conflict and embrace it, without becoming part of it. The more we learn about conflict resolution processes, human nature, the intricacies of specific disputes, and techniques for dealing with conflict, the better peacemakers we will become. The successful mediator is in fact a warrior, a warrior for peace.


First, what a warrior for peace is not. I insert here a personal note: Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away[1], I was a soldier on a violent jungle planet in another universe. While it is certainly true that those who engage in violence in an effort to effect peace are clearly warriors, they are not true Warriors for Peace. Think of it this way: there are two kinds of warriors, one is a warrior employing brute force and violence to bring an opponent to his knees; the other (a warrior for peace) is an advocate and facilitator for reason, employing a transformative process of non-violent diplomacy in the form of mediation, reconciliation and resolution.

The purpose here is not to argue whether violence (the ultimate “fallback” dispute resolution tool) is “good” or “bad” (it is not as simple a question as it sometimes appears), but to acknowledge that in the world of the win/lose zero sum game (absolute “victory” vs. absolute “defeat”) there is an alternative Way, a paradigm of collaborative negotiation as opposed to the zero-sum, winner/loser paradigm. War, violence, and their more civilized cousin, adversarial litigation and trial by jury, are all zero-sum games that, with their attendant uncertainties, costs, and unintended consequences, often resulting in pyrrhic victories, where a “win” can actually be a “loss”.

Mediation (any negotiation, actually) is a non-zero sum approach grounded in collaborative diplomacy. As a mediator, you have embarked upon the path of a Warrior for Peace. The mediator is faced with (and weighs into) a world of metaphorical “warfare,” attempting to provide the guidance and experience to enable “warring” parties to resolve their disputes and conflicts without—or with a minimum of—metaphorical bloodshed. In the context of our dispute resolution world, the “warriors for war” may be thought of as those mediation participants who are locked-and-loaded in a zero-sum, win/lose mindset. These “warriors” (and those whom they represent) are often accustomed to thinking in terms of “For us to win and thus prevail, we must crush the opposition so there will be total surrender and capitulation.”

A mediation/negotiation should not (ultimately) be an adversarial battlefield, but this fact is often lost on those who appear for a mediation. It is often a part of the mediator’s task to first transform the paradigm from a win/lose mindset to a process for collaborative problem solving. With experience and talent, the mediator can deftly alter, affect, and transform the zero-sum dynamic into a more collaborative one. In fact he/she must, if the process of mediation is to be successful. The Warrior for Peace (mediator) is that person in a dispute who can, by training, experience, and mastery of the process, move the “warring” disputants from the win/lose battlefield into the proverbial Peace Tent, where the participants may lay down their real or metaphorical arms, address their issues, and shift from adversarial confrontation to a mutually beneficial interest-based negotiation in order to craft a workable peace. The Warrior for Peace is that person who can keep the process on track and modify dynamics, shifting negatives into positives, transforming positional or emotional negotiations, communications, and conflict into a rational, facilitative dynamic, all of which (on a very good day) may include reconciliation in addition to an enduring “peace”.

Having re-read the preceding paragraph, it occurs to me that that being a Warrior for Peace is complicated, difficult and often frustrating role. However, if one is committed to being an effective mediator, that is to say, an effective Warrior for Peace, one must not only recognize that the job is difficult and not for the faint of heart: Being effective as mediators requires that all of us who hold ourselves out as professionals must continually work to improve our peacemaking techniques, working as we all are toward the highest degree in the martial art of peacemaking. Experience and self-education are critical. A wise man (more about him in the next section) says it well:

Instructors can impart only a fraction of the teaching. It is through your own devoted practice that the mysteries of the Art of Peace are brought to life.[2]


Some of you may be a student of one martial art or another, perhaps an expert; all the better, though not all martial arts are the same. In fact, most martial arts adhere to the zero-sum, win/lose paradigm: The “enemy” must be defeated. A battle will be conducted, and one will stand as the victor while the losing opponent will be vanquished. The martial art of Aikido, which forms the basis of Aikidiation, is different. In Aikido there are no contests or competitions; there are no “opponents,” only “partners”. The foundation of Aikidiation (a blending of Aikido and Mediation) provides the practicing mediator with the protective and transformative techniques developed in Aikido, which has been called the martial art of peace. Aikido, like mediation, is based upon non-violence, harmony, and transformation. The purpose of this introduction to Aikidiation training is to provide some basic but critical skills for the mediator (or any other reader who must deal with conflict) that will enable one (you, the practitioner) to deal with and defuse, hostile and adversarial situations when facilitating peace between warring parties.

The blending of these two forms of peaceful conflict resolution (Aikido and Mediation) produces a natural and effective methodology for dealing with hostility, anger, and managing negative emotions that stand in the way of reason. This small treatise is not, however, a call for anyone to undertake the years of training it takes to become an accomplished practitioner of the martial arts techniques of Aikido. Instead, consider this your White Belt degree primer to learn the philosophical and practical underpinnings of this unique and mediation-friendly martial art of peace. “Armed” with an understanding of what Aikido is, and how to apply its techniques verbally, philosophically, and psychologically, you can become a more effective mediator-peacemaker (and human being).

Aikido is a martial art that was created in Japan by Morihei Ueshiba (we refer to him as “O-Sensei”). O-Sensei, as a young man, set out to become a warrior’s warrior, nothing less than the greatest martial artist in Japan. As O-Sensei grew older, however, he began to consider and question his role in the world as a warrior, and in particular, the role of the martial arts in a world growing more violent. I won’t dwell here on the mystical revelation the (older) O-Sensei experienced, except to say that he realized that a lot of our common perceptions about life are misplaced, such as “might makes right,” “younger is better than older,” the physically stronger are somehow superior to those who are physically weaker, and that martial arts must be designed for crushing an “enemy.” O-Sensei discovered that true strength is not measured in pounds or physical prowess but—rather–the measure is more subtle and complex (peacemakers, pay attention): philosophical and spiritual strength, combined with the ephemeral “life force” (or energy that infuses life, the “ki” in Aikido), which together create the true source of strength in every living thing.

O-Sensei was a student of nature; he observed that that a simple and fragile river plant could take advantage of its own nature to survive without injury even in the most devastating of floods.[3] The Japanese word “Aikido” (“ai,” “ki,” “do”) translates (well enough) as the martial art of the Way of harmonious unification of life force/energy and spirit/essence (Ai=harmony; ki=spirit; do=path or way). A critical essence of Aikido is its system of balance, blending (more on that later) and transformation. O-Sensei tells us what Aikido means:

By transforming those who appear as enemies into enemies no more, it leads to absolute perfection of self. This martial art, therefore, is the supreme way and call to unite our body and spirit under the laws of the universe.

And this, on the nature of Aikido:

Aiki is the way of love. It is the path that brings our hearts into oneness with the spirit of the universe to complete our mission in life by instilling in us a love and reverence for all of nature.

Yes, it’s true: there is an esoteric side to Aikido, but there is also an esoteric aspect to mediation, and both are pragmatic as well as philosophical. Aikidiation, and its practical application to what we do as peacemakers, becomes much clearer as we explore and interpret certain principles identified by O-Sensei. The convergence of Aikido and mediation was foreseen in O-Sensei’s early description of Aikido:

“Opponents confront us continually, but actually there is no opponent there. Enter deeply into an attack and neutralize it as you draw that misdirected force into your own sphere.”

Aikidiation, in the nut shell version, goes something like this…

The Mediator practitioner of Aikidiation does not fight to “win”. As mediators, we are protectors of the process, but that also entails dealing with certain “attacks” during the process, regardless whether those attacks are directed at the opposing parties or, as is common, the mediator. The goal in Aikido and mediation is to not harm the attacker, but to transform the attack from a win/lose confrontation into a positive step forward in the mediation process. As noted, in Aikido we do not think of our attacker as an opponent, but as a potential collaborative partner.

There are three primary concepts in Aikido and Aikidiation: blending with the “attack,” maintaining balance, and circular movement. First, the Aikidoist moves into the path of the attack, but not with the intention of attacking the attacker. Instead, the Aikidoist allows the force of the attacker’s momentum to reach its peak as he/she shifts to an angle slightly off the direct line of attack, dodging the full force of the “attacker,” then blending in a circular motion to redirect the attack, thus allowing the attacker’s force expend itself harmlessly as the Aikidoist (balanced) uses one of thousands of potential moves to neutralize with no (or the least amount) of harm to the attacker.

To fully understand and envision this, you will need to view a physical demonstration of Aikido. In some ways, the object of neutralizing an attacker is to convert the “attack” into a transformative teaching moment for the attacker. Picture this: someone attempts to physically attack you and you respond by using that person’s own force against them, resulting in the erstwhile “attacker” being immobilized on the ground as you quietly restrain him and (this really happens) explain to the attacker the new rules of the new game. Aikido is very effective in police work. Once (in another galaxy far away) your author was a law enforcement officer who often used Aikido techniques to fend off the attack of some bad guy or another. Usually, it went something like this: Bad guy comes charging at you; you enter the attack while shifting off the direct line, winding up beside or behind the attacker, utilizing an Aikido technique to incapacitate the attacker on the ground as you quietly explain that he is going to jail for such and such, that resistance is futile, and that you will take care of him and that you don’t mean him any harm. You explain that you are going to protect him now that he is under your control, and let him know that you are not his enemy. (I do not mean to be glib: there are often very violent confrontations in which peacefully “transforming” the bad guy is not possible. One sometimes has to be satisfied with the fact that the bad guy was disabled with the least amount of harm and hope that at some point the bad guy will find some other opportunity for transformation.)

These same Aikido principles in physical are easily (and naturally) applicable to non-physical confrontations or “attacks”:

Don’t use the attack to prove or argue your own point at the time of attack… turn the attack into a teaching opportunity…

A mediator needs information, not a battle. Did we mention the art of Listening actively? The more you understand, the more opportunities you have to resolve the real issues

Accept the attack without reflexive counter-attack: don’t meet force with force

Blend, harmonize and redirect “positions” toward collaborative understanding and problem solving.

Remember: in all things as a mediator…DO NO HARM

Show concern and interest, inquire, your desire to understand itself will alter the dynamic of attack allowing the “attacker” to make his point without damage to you as you redirect and reframe the attack to a dialogue.

Don’t respond in the way the attacker might expect from the attack—Aikidiation is the art of blending, deflecting, re-directing and reframing to dissipate the hostility

Ask questions, listen…listen…listen… seek to understand where the attack is coming from even if you do not agree with the premise, even if the attack is hostile—meeting hostility with hostility escalates the conflict

Don’t focus on your own feelings of being attacked…respect your “attacker” to diffuse her hostility…acknowledge that there is disagreement and thank the attacker for articulating it


All mediations involve conflict, and not always just between the parties. The mediator must continuously avoid being dragged into the conflict, either as a result of perceived bias, or as a surrogate for expression of hostility, anger, or frustration of the warring parties. Note that this is not to say that the mediator won’t at times be exposed to bearing the brunt of the inevitable attacks from frustrated, angry, or difficult people and personalities. Aikidiation is a method—a very effective method—of dealing with those situations in which the mediator is “attacked” for whatever reason, and for dealing with the “attack” in a way in which the mediator does not become a part of the problem. Most ethical guidelines for mediators include language similar to the Preamble to the Standards of Practice for Mediators as promulgated by the Texas Association of Mediators:

Mediation is a conflict resolution process in which an impartial third party assists the participants in negotiating a consensual and informed settlement…The role of the mediator includes REDUCING OBSTACLES TO COMMUNICATION, maximizing the exploration of alternatives, and addressing the needs of those it is agreed are involved or effective.[4]

As with all our standards of ethical practice, the words mean something. They translate into how we are to practice. This includes our obligations to reduce obstacles to communication in the mediation, which requires that we reduce obstacles not only between the parties, but also as it applies to communications that take place between the mediator and the individual parties. Aikidiation is designed to minimize the prospect of having the mediator become the obstacle to communication, while at the same time enhancing the mediator’s ability to explore alternatives, address needs, and protect the non-aggressor parties, all of which is not only the mediator’s ethical obligation to the parties, but a duty to the process of mediation as well.

Conflict is never “the problem,” only a symptom of the problem. The mediator is responsible for enhancing communication and understanding, and in this role the application of Aikidiation is valuable not only in dealing with miscommunications between the parties, but flawed communications that may involve the mediator. We see this often when parties are angry, emotional, irrational, or otherwise “difficult.” Our job, our obligation as mediators, is to maintain and restore peaceful equilibrium, which of course is the underpinning goal of Aikidiation.

Most people in the world operate on the “Fight or Flight” model when faced with conflict or attack. The truth is, there is an array of options available for dealing with an attack (whether the attack is directed at the mediator directly, or as a surrogate for the opposing parties). For our purposes here, we will focus on four potential responses to an attack, with examples. Prepare to move toward your next level “belt” in Aikidiation. Instead of reacting in a knee jerk fashion based on the “fight or flight” response, consider your options. The first three responses will be familiar; the fourth—the Aikidiation response—will provide you with what I have found to be the most effective response to any physical or verbal confrontation.

THREE BASIC RESPONSES TO AN ATTACK (In the mediation context)

  1. Fight Back (The “fight” reaction)

Let’s see how effective this response/reaction is to the following scenario: You have been mediating a difficult dispute for hours and you have separated the parties. You walk into one of the rooms where you have a party that is (understandably) frustrated with the slow pace of the negotiations, notwithstanding the fact that this party has, throughout the process, been obstreperous and demanding—“negotiating,” as it were, with unreasonable and bullying demands. You say to the party: “I just came in to say that I’m not ignoring you, but I think I need to spend a few more minutes with the other side before we talk. They are still trying to figure out how to respond to your last demand. They did say that I had permission to tell you that the problem they are having is that it appears to them that when you factor in the cost of this last demand, it’s higher than your previous one.”[5]

The response to this rather benign visit by the mediator is jarring: “This is insane! You’re not doing your job! You’re supposed to beat up on them, cram it down their [expletive] throats! We’re not getting anywhere! You mediators are all alike! I won’t put up with this [expletive]—I’m [expletive] outta’ here!”

If your reaction is to fight (or push back), you might angrily blurt: “What the hell are you talking about! You’re the problem in this mediation, not me!”

We won’t spend much time here on the appropriateness of this response from the mediator, except to say that it is obvious she/he has not been working toward a black belt in Aikidiation. Once you meet hostility or anger with your own hostility and anger, you then become “the enemy.” In Aikido, fighting back is not the goal; in Aikidiation, it is difficult to imagine that engaging in verbal combat with a party/party representative is ever appropriate.

2. Withdraw/retreat (the “flight” reaction).

Fleeing from the room and slamming the door behind you is not a preferred or recommended Aikidiation move. Typically, when there is an attack—or threat of attack—the attacker is taking your measure, trying to determine if he has rattled or scared you. If, alternatively, in the above scenario, express surprise, know you can’t “fight back,” and in and attempt to exit the conflict blurt out “I…I… I’ll be right back…” then leave the room hoping to somehow gather your wits, you may have avoided an immediate breakdown of the mediation process, but you have weakened your position as the mediator, and your role as competent manager of the process. In the eyes of the attacker, he has won and you have lost, and he will continue to play the same game until, inevitably, the process will collapse. If the process implodes (and worse, if the implosion is the fault of the mediator), you as mediator have not only lost the opportunity a teaching moment and re-orientation of “the game,” but have as well probably stepped over an ethical line.

3. Discussion

Same example as above, but this time you have the presence of mind to “buy time” with a discussion, responding. “Wait, let’s talk about this. There’s no reason to leave. Maybe we’ll get there, maybe we won’t, but we won’t know unless we give it a chance, will we?” While this may be a better response than “fighting back” or “retreating,” it’s not optimum. You might succeed in calming down and mollifying the attacker (which is usually the purpose of choosing this response); however, temporarily mollifying the attacker does not change the dynamic, it only encourages the attacker in the mediation to keep pushing the limits in an effort to bully the mediator to act as a surrogate bully with the opposing party.

As you will now see, there is a better response—Aikidiation—which allows you to ethically carry out your responsibilities as a mediator, protect the process, and maximize the opportunities to re-orient a dysfunctional battle into a collaborative enterprise for peace…

4. The Aikidiation Response…

Let’s take a look at the same scenario unfolding with Aikidiation techniques:


“I just came in to say that I’m not ignoring you, but I think I need to spend a few more minutes with the other side before we talk. They are still trying to figure out how to respond to your last demand. They did say that I had permission to tell you that the problem they are having is that it appears to them that when you factor in the cost of this last demand, it’s higher than your previous one.”


“This is insane! You’re not doing your job! You’re supposed to beat up on them, cram it down their [expletive] throats! We’re not getting anywhere! You mediators are all alike! I won’t put up with this [expletive]—I’m [expletive] outta’ here!”

Let’s quickly review what you know about Aikidiation thus far. The attack comes and you prepare to respond by:

1. Centering to maintain your balance. In Aikido and Aikidiation, staying centered and balanced (physically and mentally) is the foundation for all that follows;

2. Accept and blend with the attack. By accepting and blending, if done properly, you maintain your balance while using the attacker’s own energy/momentum to temporarily unbalance the attacker.

3. Acknowledge the attack (with empathy/understanding, but without validation).

4. Harmonize and redirect the attack. The goal is to transform the attack into an opportunity for partnership.

5. Don’t respond as anticipated. Aikidiation is the art of blending, deflecting, re-directing, re-orienting (and re-framing) the attack to diffuse the attack and transform it into a collaborative paradigm.

6. Show concern. Express immediate concern and interest. Your expression of interest will, in and of itself, change slightly the dynamic of hostile attack by allowing the attacker to make his/her point without doing any damage.

7. Don’t focus on your own feelings. Show respect to the attacker; acknowledge that there is a disagreement (or misunderstanding), and thank the attacker for articulating it so that it can be explored and discussed.

8. Listen, and then ask questions. Seek to understand where the attack is coming from, even if you know the premise is incorrect, and even if the attack is rude, nasty, and hostile. Meeting hostility with hostility is counter-productive, especially in a mediation/negotiation.

Now, back to the Aikidiation response to the example above:


“This is insane! You’re not doing your job! You’re supposed to beat up on them, cram it down their [expletive] throats! We’re not getting anywhere! You mediators are all alike! I won’t put up with this [expletive]—I’m [expletive] outta’ here!”

Mediator[6]: (Moving toward, not away from, the ranting lawyer, perhaps sitting beside him, facing him, responding in an even, calm voice in a tone both genuinely understanding and empathetic…)

“I hear what you’re saying [Bob/Sally]. I’m glad you’ve brought this up, your timing is perfect. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of frustration. In fact, I’ve heard it a lot in the thirty years I’ve been doing this. And believe me, I appreciate your telling me how frustrated you are right now.

But one of the advantages of mediation for you is having a neutral who actually has a finger on the pulse of what’s really going on because I get to meet privately and confidentially with the parties. I understand that while I’ve been talking to the other side, keeping things moving forward, you’ve been sitting here wondering if we’re getting anywhere. I probably haven’t given you enough information on the progress I’m seeing. It’s been a long day, and I know the slogging seems slow. No wonder you’re a little frustrated. I should have explained this better to you earlier.

Because I’m the only one here today who really knows what’s going on behind all the parties’ closed doors, it puts me in the position of being the only one who knows with any degree of certainty whether we’re making progress toward resolving this dispute. My judgment at this point is that we are making progress. Slowly, but progress all the same.

So, let’s the two of us make a deal, Bob: What I’d ask is that you bear with me here, at least for the time being, for as long as I tell you I think we’re making some progress that might be of some benefit. I’ve got some things to discuss with you after I get things situated in the other room on how we might move in tandem toward even more substantial progress. But I’ll promise you this: the minute I determine that we’re spinning our wheels, and all is hopeless, I’ll tell you. Okay?”

If you analyze the response (as opposed to a “reaction”) of the mediator in the context of the eight elements of the Aikidiation response, above, you will notice that it’s not merely mollification or delay: Everything said in this Aikidiation response serves a purpose. Let us deconstruct the four short paragraphs of the mediator’s response:

  • Paragraph 1: The mediator moves in closer to the hostile person. The hostile person is not certain what will happen next, and is still on “high alert”. But instead of a confrontation, the hostile person watches as the mediator pulls up a chair and sits (the looming—standing—threat is diminished). Still, the hostile person is still expecting a reaction from the mediator, perhaps hostile, perhaps submissive, perhaps the usual “Oh, please don’t go” begging from a mediator, which this person has probably herd often as a reaction to his bullying, aggressive tactics. Instead, what he hears is the mediator in a calm and controlled tone telling him that he is interested in the matter that the hostile person has raised; appreciates and understands the frustration; that he empathizes with the attacker; and acknowledges that the feelings, frustration and outburst by the lawyer is not uncommon or bad (which also provides the hostile person with an opportunity to save a little face. The hostile person sees his anger, frustration, or other emotions dissipating and being replaced by a realization that his (surrogate) target “enemy” not only understands his outburst and emotion (while also realizing that it didn’t go as he intended, which was to co-opt and manipulate the process in some fashion). The mediator entered the attack, acknowledge the attack, blended with the attack, and transformed the attack’s energy into an opportunity for partnership, collaboration, etc.
  • Paragraphs 2 and 3: The mediator begins re-directing and harmonizing the attack while at the same time using the attack as a teaching moment to re-emphasize the advantages of the mediation process.
  • Paragraph 4: The mediator transforms the confrontation into an opportunity for partnership (with a “deal” that no rational person can refuse).

Personally, while I could live without the high drama that often arises in a mediation, I always anticipate it and appreciate the expression of hostility when it occurs; it provides a perfect opportunity to listen, and discuss how the process is working, acknowledge the frustration and sometimes slow-moving nature of the process. It provides the mediator with an opportunity to explain and discuss some of the benefits (and “magic”) of mediation– and how the process can benefit the party who doesn’t have a clear grasp of a collaborative process. It provides an opportunity to re-orient the parties from positional/hostile/adversarial negotiation methods to a collaborative/facilitated shift in the paradigm. It’s also an opportunity to teach, and to earn more trust (“I’ll tell you if it’s hopeless; I’ll keep you informed; you are part of this process and I am your ally [in the process, not the dispute]”. What have you accomplished with an Aikidiation response? First, you’ve blended with and avoided the intended force of the attack. Second, you’ve re-directed the attack’s energy into a very different model, that of collaboration and understanding. Third, you have in but a few words built a new degree of trust (you are taking care of the parties and are committing to not wasting their time if you—as mediator—decide settlement is not possible). Fourth, you have in those same few words managed to educate the attacker about how the process actually works, and the value of confidentiality between the parties and the mediator. Fifth, you have not scolded or attacked the attacker, thus giving him/her the opportunity to “vent” and, more importantly, the opportunity to save face by being invited to agree to a deal that is good for the attacker and good for the process—a deal that in even a minimally rational situation is hard to refuse. You have also graciously provided the irrational “attacker” an opportunity to regain his/her own balance and sanity (or, at least, you have modeled both).


It is sometimes the case that there is a party in a negotiation or mediation who, for a myriad reasons, refuses to engage with the mediator. An unresponsive person is one of the most difficult challenges for a mediator or negotiator. In some cases the reluctance to engage in discussion, much less the negotiation process, is the result of fear, sometimes it’s anger, other times avoidance, a denial mechanism to forestall dealing with a situation over which the participant might feel that s/he has little control. Often it is a tactic: silence or unresponsiveness can be frustrating and unsettling for the recipient of that treatment. In some contexts, the failure of a party “to engage” may be the result of mental or chemical issues, or both. Occasionally, it might be all of the above.

There is no single rule, word, action or “silver bullet” to use in bringing a person out of the shell in which they have withdrawn, but there are a number of methods that stand a better than even-odds chance of getting the non-responsive to engage. We’ll explore a few from an Aikidiation perspective.

There is, however, a single method, or strategy, that is most often affective: Enter and blend into the recalcitrant person’s reality and communication becomes simple. Though, of course, it may not be easy to enter that person’s mental world or construct, as some of those “worlds” can be a pretty strange or foreign indeed.

Knowing something about the person with whom you are dealing is critical, even if all you know is the person’s name. A mediator/negotiator faces less of a problem in this regard than, say, the police officer first-responder who may have little if any information about the person with whom he or she is dealing. One certainty is that the non-responsive person is withdrawn for some reason, and it takes both creativity and patience to pry the clam from its shell. In dealing with this situation, one must use trial and error, but experience (and information about the person) will allow the mediator (or, of a law enforcement situation, the negotiator) to more quickly analyze what might work with the person and particular dynamics of the situation. It should be noted that these techniques work better when the mediator/negotiator is face-to-face with the recalcitrant other. Crisis negotiators, dealing in real time with subjects who may be behind closed doors, or only available by telephone, can also use these methods, but the techniques must then be adapted to the realities of the situation. The following suggestions represent a few of the many methods[7] for dealing with that person who does not want to (or initially refuses to) communicate.

  • Remain calm, do not threaten (“Calm” can often open up a “Clam;” sometimes the mere transposition of a letter in the word will do). You, as the one with apparent authority over the situation, may be intimidating to the person with whom you are dealing, a person who may be overwhelmed or frightened of your authority. (There is lower case “authority”—a mediator or opposing lawyer, for example—and then there is UPPER CASE “AUTHORITY!”—a police officer or judge, for example. To the person facing that authority (or AUTHORITY!), the initial “response” might be the passive-aggressive response of minimal responsiveness, or complete silence in the face of direct questions. But there is a difference between blunt, direct authoritative questions and the kind of questioning that might take place applying Aikidiation principles. The initial approach (or non-approach) to the matters at hand are critical for setting the tone. An aggressive or forceful approach is counter-productive in this situation. Counter-intuitively, your “authority” or “AUTHORITY!” will be enhanced with a less aggressive or demanding approach.
  • Put yourself in a situation where you are in a negotiation and the mediator—or perhaps your opposing negotiator—looks at you fiercely and says “I’m here to get answers, and you are here to give me answers! I ask, you answer, got it?” A likely response to that, for one not grounded in Aikidiation, might be to either fight (bark back angrily) or take flight (clam up). The initial approach should always convey a confident but reassuring presence and calm.


  • The more background you have about the person with whom you’re engaged, the better. But often you know little about the person. In the mediation context, the experienced mediator will spend time privately with the parties before the negotiation sessions begin. This is not only to gather information, but to set a tone, most importantly, to begin the building of trust, the primary capital of the mediator or negotiator. This “initial contact” is also important because you begin to sense the personalities (and communication levels) of the people with whom you are dealing. This is a luxury that often isn’t available to peace officers or other negotiators who have to “wing it” in the field. No matter, in every situation there is initial contact. And a lot can be gleaned quickly in any first contact. I always like my first words to be simple because the answer (or non-answer) will tell me a lot. My first words, in different variations, are usually something like “How are you doing?” (spoken with a tone of both concern and interest). If you know the person’s name, use it: “How you are doin’, John (or Cathy, or Mr. or Ms. Whoever)” The response to that simple question will tell you whether or not you’re going to be dealing with a totally unresponsive person. If the answer is something like “Not too good. I don’t really know what I’m doing here,” you’re off to a good start. If the answer is a curt “Fine”[8], you’ve got some work ahead of you. If it’s an unintelligible grunt or stony silence, more work still. But from your first contact you should be able to glean whether you’re in for a long or short haul when with respect to establishing a communication link.
  • Assuming that it’s not going to be an easy day, and the person is going to be a challenge to engage, it’s time to circle around, blend, and change the non-communication game. Let the non-responsive person know (still in a calm, concerned, and reassuring manner and tone) that you are interested in listening and understanding what the other person has to share. “The more I understand,” I might say, “the better position I’ll be in to try and help you.” Attempt to set the tone for the game that is afoot if you’ve been put in the position to make the first connection. Begin with the idea of not merely “communicating”, but building trust, with the expressed goal of assisting the person at whatever level you can offer assistance (even if the “assistance” is hearing what the other person has to say). I call it “CTA”: Connect, Trust, Assist.

This is important to remember: One of the most basic needs another person has in the course of any conflict is to be heard and for the listener to understand the person’s pain, perspective, or problem. This does not mean you have to agree with the person’s perspective, only that they know that someone (you) clearly understand their problem. This in itself can ratchet-down a lot of negative emotion and attitude.

  • Refrain from asking closed ended questions that require only a “yes” or “no” (or worse, nods). Ask open-ended questions. Three of the most important words in the negotiator’s tool box are “Help me understand…” as a preface to a question: “Help me understand what you need…(” for example. Or, “help me understand what’s going on here.” Or, in an old street cop context, “Dude, help me understand why you’re walking down the street naked swinging a sword? (An actual question I once had to ask, though from about twenty feet away). Open-ended questions by their nature invite a response. And if silence has been the “weapon” of the person you are dealing with, then you should take the force of that silence and use it to break the silence. The ball is now the other person’s court: Let silence be your friend at this point. But the open-ended question by itself is not enough. The question should be coupled with asking the question and waiting (in silence), but still communicating with your eyes and body language. Project interest in the person and his/her response, wait patiently but expectantly, maybe with a slight friendly smile, eyebrows raised and your eyes open a little wider than usual, all signals that you are inviting (and waiting for) an answer. While you’re waiting, mentally count slowly to twelve.[9]


  • If the person hasn’t responded within the waiting period, it’s time to make it a little more personal. Your next question might be along the lines of “See, John, I was expecting you to say something, but you haven’t. What does that mean?” Wait and count silently again. Taking the time (what else do you have?) in patient, calm, persistent stages (and controlling your own frustration) will usually bring the person to a point where it becomes more uncomfortable for him/her not to respond. If there’s still no response, you’re in a box, but that can still be a good thing for you. You aren’t done yet. At that point you can say something like: “I’m waiting for a response, but you’re silent. This isn’t good. How do we get out of this little bind?” This is likely to get some response, even if that response is only “beats the hell out of me,” or “I don’t know.” If you get that much, it gives you something to work with. Also, this line of questioning is designed to make it easier, and more “face-saving,” for the person to respond.

Finally, the Harvard Negotiation Project[10] has developed some other good (and succinct) tips for dealing with the uncommunicative person or opponent, which also “blend” well in the Aikidiation context:

  • Gain control of the situation by making it a face-to-face, one-on-one.
  • Explore feelings underlying the demands (or silence)
  • Allow emotions to dissipate with the passage of time (which is why patience is important. Remember that you have the advantage of time and to move in stages).
  • Collaborate as much as possible in solving the other person’s short term problems.
  • (And, if you are an advocate negotiating with an opponent, help your counterpart save face, especially if you are the one coming out ahead.)

If there is ample time, there are other Aikidiation techniques that can help break down the barriers to communication:

  • Don’t overlook the power of narrative. If the person is unresponsive, and you have the right approach and knack, it is sometimes possible to begin building some trust and potential for communication with someone, by simply starting a narrative, telling a story, talking about something unrelated to the issue or crisis at hand. Start your own narrative. Mainly, it has the effect of sharing a little of you, which often will result in a little more openness from your audience of one. Make your narrative fit the situation. For example: “You look a little upset. I can relate to that. Last night was hellish for me. My son broke his arm jumping on the trampoline, right before bedtime. We were at the E.R. until after midnight. I’m in a bit of a fog right now, I’m working hard right now to set that aside so we can tackle this problem today. Let’s work together to keep our stress levels as low as we can, okay?”

Dealing with difficult people is not an easy task. Dealing with the non-responsive person is an additional challenge[11]. Experience counts, of course, but so does having tools in the tool box to deal with such situations. It also helps to foster the ability to try a little ingenuity to creatively deal with every new situation that doesn’t fit neatly into a conventional box—the art of improv is very valuable in any dicey or difficult situation, a category in which every mediation resides.

See, it’s all very simple.


It is impossible in the span of a short paper or class to fully explore—much less master—the Way of Aikidiation. The purpose of this paper is to provide you with a paradigm that will allow you to think about new and alternative ways to deal with difficult people and difficult situations in mediation by utilizing a “peaceful martial art” that is harmonious with the duties and ethics of mediators. Likely, if you’ve been mediating or negotiating for years, you have intuitively incorporated, by accident or design, some of the principles of Aikidiation. The goal—if any of this resonates for you—is to work toward mastery of this art, which is not only a harmonious blend with your practice, but also furthers the fundamental purpose of mediation, guiding disputants through a process that allows for non-adversarial communication, reduction of hostility, and the management of difficult people and personalities in order to re-focus the conflict from “people” to the real “problem,” an interest-based resolution of the dispute.

Go forth and make peace.

Recommended Reading:

The Spirit of Aikido, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, 1984, Kodansha International Press

The Art Of Peace, Morihei Ueshiba, (compiled and translated by John Stevens), 1992, Shambhala Press

Aikido In Everyday Life (Giving in to get your way), Terry Dobson & Victor Miller, 1993, North Atlantic Books

Verbal Judo (The Gentle Art of Persuasion), George J. Thompson, Ph.D., and Jerry B. Jenkins, 1993/2004, Quill, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. (Thompson is a former cop with street experience. A lot of what he has to say echoes Aikidiation, and is informed by having been there, done that, and observing keenly.)

  1. My thanks to some great writing that created “Star Wars.”
  2. Morihei Ueshiba, “The Art of Peace”, translated by John Stevens, Shambhala Press, 1992.
  3. A primary reading list of books applicable to Aikidiation is included at the end of this paper. These books belong in every mediator’s library.
  4. TAM Standards of Practice—emphasis added.
  5. The reality is that the mediator was attempting to downplay the reaction of the parties in the other room and to lay the groundwork reducing the effect of the “demand.” The mediator needed to spend additional time with the other party in an attempt to fend off an unreasonable or retaliatory response. All of this a result of this party’s “negotiation” techniques, which might be found in the (yet unwritten) book titled How to Negotiate Like A [expletive!] Idiot”.
  6. Caveat: remember that there are many possible responses; ten million stories in the Naked City: this is just one possible example.
  7. In Aikido, there are fundamental moves and techniques that generate thousands of potential variations. As a mediator (or any other negotiator), the purpose of experience, practice and training is to learn to intuit which techniques (or variations of techniques; or new techniques created on the spot) should be employed to modify, shift, circle the behavior, while always maintaining balance and control over the situation of the opponent or counterpart with whom you are at first only unilaterally engaged.
  8. The answer “fine,” or “okay” always reminds me of conversations I’ve had with my children after picking them up after school. The answer is designed to be a full stop period punctuation mark; I’m not in the mood to talk, Dad. Give up trying to talk to me clue. After mentally kicking myself, I wait a few minutes in the silence before asking my next question as if there had never been a previous question. “So, tell me, what was the best and worst thing that happened to you today?” It always gets a response. You have to make it difficult for the un-communicator to play their little game.
  9. Thanks also to B.J. Rakow, Ph.D., who has also written extensively about techniques for dealing with unresponsive people.
  10. Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation. “Think Like a Hostage Negotiator.” Harvard, 28 Jul. 2008, https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/negotiation-skills-daily/think-like-a-hostage-negotiator/.
  11. A logical warning, especially when dealing with a person about whom you have no information: make sure that the person is not deaf or hearing impaired. This may sound basic, but in fact there have been tragedies (especially in police work) where a person was not responding because that person was hearing impaired.