How emotional judo can help you take control of every conflict

It’s a situation we all dread. You’re faced with an angry customer, boss, employee, or family member. Something’s gone wrong and they’re about to tell you off. You can feel your blood pressure rising. What do you do?


Try emotional judo. That advice comes from Ron Kaufman, author of the bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet.

“If you watch judo, it’s the opposite of boxing,” he explains. In boxing, the idea is to hit hard, then deflect or absorb your opponent’s blows so that you can come back and hit some more. “In judo, if someone throws a punch, you use the momentum in a way they don’t expect so that it causes them, for a moment, to come off balance. And in their moment off balance, you have the opportunity to influence the future of that situation.”

Makes sense in the martial art world, but how does it work in real life? With these five steps:

Agree with their values

“Let’s say someone comes at you with a complaint, and the complaint is that your company is slow, and they’re angry,” Kaufman says. “And you do the research and find that your company is exactly on time. There was no error on your side.”

Resist the temptation to tell them that they’re wrong. “If you say, ‘You don’t have the right information,’ you’re heading for a fight,” Kaufman says. Instead, consider the message underneath the complaint. “If someone throws a punch at you there is something they value they did not receive, that’s why they’re throwing the punch.”

Understanding that dynamic is the key to emotional judo. “In this case, what they value is speed, and their time,” he says. “If my first response is, ‘You have a point, speed counts. I understand you value your time,’ I’ve agreed with what the person values that was behind their complaint. The defensive reaction is, ‘No, we’re not slow!’ The judo reaction is, ‘What you value is legitimate and we agree on its importance.’”

Now the other person is off balance. “You’re in a position to say, ‘Let me take a look at what happened here,’” Kaufman says. “Then you come back and say, ‘I took a look into this and this is what I’ve found.’ Now the person thinks of you as being on their side, not someone they’re in an argument with.”

This technique works just as well for avoiding a fight with a loved one, he adds. Say your spouse is angry at you for not spending enough time with your children. Kaufman says, instead of responding by saying how much time you did spend with the kids, or defending your use of time because of your work schedule, simply agree on the value being expressed: Spending time with the kids is important for both parents. Then you can work together toward a solution.

Do what you can to fix the problem

Once you’ve used emotional judo to put your antagonist off balance, you can resolve things most quickly by following up with a forceful show of good will. The first step is to do everything you reasonably can to resolve the situation. This may mean sharing your research as to why you weren’t late, or if there really was a delay, it may mean taking action to prevent it from happening again.

Express concern

Once you’ve done everything you can to resolve the issue, Kaufman advises, mend the relationship by showing concern. One way to do this is to apologize, either for whatever you did wrong, if you did something wrong, or for the other person’s experience. “I’m sorry you were inconvenienced,” for instance. But don’t take this step until after you’ve done whatever you can to fix the problem, Kaufman cautions. Otherwise, you risk coming off as hypocritical.

Give something extra

The last step is to give the person who was angry at you something to strengthen the relationship, but choose whatever it is wisely, Kaufman advises. “What you give should align with what the person values, so you don’t waste money or effort,” he says.

For the speed-valuing customer, it might be a special number to call so that the order goes straight through, or maybe a one-time gift of rush shipping. And it doesn’t have to be something that costs money. If a customer has made it clear that he or she values relationships, then a handwritten note might be more appreciated than a discount.

Thank them for alerting you

The fact is, they deserve your thanks, Kaufman says. These days, someone who complains is actually attempting to preserve your relationship. “A customer today has the chance to take that complaint and go viral with a few clicks of the mouse,” Kaufman says. “It’s so easy not to tell you, but instead te­ll a lot of other people.”

The fact that they brought this to you instead of, say, Twitter, means that person is deliberately choosing not to burn that bridge, he says. “They’ve already decided to give you a second chance.”

Author: Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap.