The Art of Resolving Conflict With an Abusive Individual
By Hugh Young
This essay has been adapted from an upcoming book for use in the “Aikido and The Art of Principled
Negotiation” workshop (session E5) at the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution
Fourth Annual Spring Conference on 4/6/02 in Seattle. (Note: This essay won an award at this
conference for the Best Original Materials)
The purpose of this essay is to give you a practical understanding of how to ethically and effectively
resolve conflicts with abusive individuals. Abuse is a common behavior, and because of this,
knowing how to resolve these conflicts is an extremely valuable life skill. Of course this is not an
easy task. Abusers have developed effective strategies for getting what they want, have often used
these strategies for a long time, and are well practiced in how to implement them.
One of the characteristics of the abuser’s unique psychological profile is his compelling drive to win.
Abusers perceive the world to be a competitive place, and because of this they see their targets as
competitors. The abuser’s strategy is to get others to play the abuse “game” by his rules. Trying to
beat an abuser at his own game is usually neither wise nor effective.
The best way to prevent or handle abuse is to change the nature of the relationship. This is where
training in the extraordinary martial art known as Aikido is useful. Aikido is based on a profound
philosophy of conflict resolution that takes an enlightened approach to abuse prevention. Unlike
most martial arts, Aikido is not competitive, and therefore does not seek to “win” by beating an
opponent. Instead, the Aikidoka (Aikido practitioner) learns to transform the relationship with the
abuser from that of abuser and his victim, to that of a relationship between equals.
To tell you how Aikido does this, I would like to start with a story from the Zen mythology of Japan.
The story will provide a valuable reference for approaching our subject. The tale is of an ethical man
who must resolve a conflict with an unprincipled bully.
The Tea Master and The Bully Samurai
There once was a master of the tea ceremony, who was challenged to a sword duel by a mean spirited
Samurai. This Bully Samurai hoped to make a name for himself as a skilled fighter by winning some
The Tea Master, a member of the Samurai class himself, accepted the challenge as it was his duty to
do, least he lose face and bring disgrace to his family and clan. The problem that the Tea Master
faced was that he had woefully neglected his study of the ways of the sword, and would surely be
easily killed in the match.
Although it was the duty of every Samurai to be skilled in the arts of war, the Tea Master lived at a
time of peace. Having little need and no innate interest in the martial arts, he instead had a profound
interest in Zen, and particularly Chado, the Way of Tea. While the other boys during his youth were
engaged in martial arts practice, the Tea Master could be found at the Zendo (meditation hall)
studying Zen, meditating, and pursuing his love of Chado. Through his passion and hard work, he was
fortunate to earn the honor of studying with some of the finest teachers of the time.
His single-minded attention to Zen and Tea had led to his attaining high recognition for his abilities. It
was this recognition that led to the challenge by the Bully Samurai. The Bully Samurai was hoping to
increase his status by beating an opponent of much higher rank. In this case he figured he could do so
with little risk to himself. So he made up a petty complaint, pretended to be outraged at the slight,
and stated he would settle for no less than blood. The match was set for two days later at a remote
The Tea Master, recognizing that he was no match for the Bully Samurai, decided that the only
honorable course of action was to learn to die in as dignified a manner as possible. In this way,
although he would lose his life, at least he would not bring dishonor to his name, family, or clan.
So he went to the finest sword master in the area, and asked for instruction on how to die in a sword
match with dignity. The sword master agreed to instruct the Tea Master, but first requested that
the Tea Master prepare tea for him. Recognizing that this would likely be the last time he ever
performed his beloved ceremony, the Tea Master poured everything he had into it.
The sword master was astonished with the beauty of the Tea Master’s presentation. Every detail was
performed with the greatest attention. Most men in his position would be lost in a jumble of anxiety,
fear, and anger. Yet, here was a man facing his death with an acceptance and calmness greater than
the sword master had witnessed before.
When the ceremony was complete, the sword master told the Tea Master that it was clear that he
already knew how to die with dignity. What he needed to do was face the Bully Samurai with the same
presence and composure he used to serve tea. All the sword master could possibly add was a few
details like how to hold the sword, the proper stance and an appropriate strategy to assume when
facing the Bully Samurai.
They met the next morning in the remote field. Just as the sword master had instructed him, the Tea
Master went through the ritual of preparation for what he thought would be his last act in this world.
The sword master had instructed him to take a “jodan” position with the sword held high and away
from his attacker. Here he was to wait until the Bully Samurai came to strike him. At the moment he
knew he would be touched by his opponent’s sword, he was to summon all his power to counter strike.
The Tea Master carried out these instructions to perfection. The Bully Samurai immediately sensed
that something was wrong, but covered his concern by exclaiming that it concerned him little that the
Tea Master obviously knew more than he was letting on. He went on to falsely claim that he had
beaten many others on the field of battle and this would be no different.
The Bully Samurai began to circle the Tea Master looking for a weakness or opening that he might
exploit, but try as he might he could find none. He saw that any attempt he made to strike the Tea
Master would lead to “aiuchi,” mutual kill. Beads of perspiration began to form on his troubled brow,
yet whatever he did the Tea Master held his position with unrelenting calm and presence.
This filled the Bully Samurai with anger and fear. He was the one who now recognized that he was
completely out matched. He lowered his sword and begged the Tea Master’s forgiveness, which was
given after getting a promise to behave better in the future.
This story is popular with Zen practitioners because it shows the power of Zen training. The Tea
Master was able to face the Bully Samurai with fearless calm and resolve because through his
intensive study he had made peace with death. This peak state of consciousness is a very powerful
accomplishment, one that all martial artists strive for. Without it, the Tea Master would have been
powerless against the Bully Samurai. Still, from a conflict resolution perspective, this is not the
highest level of attainment.
For all his mastery, the Tea Master was out of touch with the reality of the world he lived in. Abuse
is common behavior. Everyone is touched by abuse either directly or indirectly. To not recognize
and take steps to address this fact is to court the kind of trouble that the Tea Master experienced. If
he better understood abuse he could have taken some easy steps to make himself a less inviting
target, and thereby have prevented the whole nasty encounter before it began.
For the Aikidoka (Aikido practitioner), mastery means living life with such power and deep
understanding that one never gets drawn into an unwanted conflict like this. This is not because the
Aikidoka avoids conflict. To the contrary, Aikido recognizes conflict as a natural, normal, and
important part of living a full and productive life. Since it is impossible to avoid conflict, it makes
more sense to master it so that it works for you rather than against you. At its most basic level this
is the purpose of Aikido.
Aikido is practiced as a role-play scenario of an abusive situation. The typical pattern involves
having one or more persons play the role of attacker(s), so the other partner, known as “nage,” can
learn and develop his Aikido. The person playing the attacker role is known as “uke,” which derives
from the Japanese word meaning “to receive.” This refers to the fact that uke receives the Aikido
technique being applied by nage.
Aikido training is a give and take situation where each individual spends half his time being uke and
half being nage. Playing the role of uke is not entirely a selfless act, for in the dojo (training studio)
it becomes apparent that the best uke are also the best Aikidoka. This is not a coincidence. To
learn Aikido it is essential to develop a complete understanding of the art that can only come
through learning both roles. Playing the role of an unprincipled abuser is a powerful way to gain an
understanding of abuse, which can then be applied in prevention. With this in mind, I will begin by
taking a look at abuse and abusers.
Full article here: http://www.ai-ki-do.org/Articles/AikidoAndAbuse/AikidoAndAbuse.pdf