“Verbal Judo” and 10 Things I Learned from George J. Thompson

People hardly ever say what they mean. Most people are driven by emotions, especially in highly-charged circumstances. Their words reflect those emotions, even if they act otherwise.

The kid (or coworker) that grumbles throughout a task — is still doing that task (even though she’s not framing it in a positive way).

"Verbal Judo" teaches you to redirect verbal aggression as a Professional
“Verbal Judo” teaches you to redirect verbal aggression as a Professional

The spouse, during an argument, who throws out the incorrect idea that “you never do the dishes! you never do the laundry!” is usually speaking from frustration, not from facts.

The employee that insists that he’ll be on time tomorrow is speaking out of embarrassment, not reason. Nothing has changed in his routine. He’s forgotten all about his promise when the next morning rolls around.

A famous example of people’s actions and words being incongruent is the Milgram experiment, where participants willingly “shocked” a hidden actor because an authority told them to. As much as the participants protested with their words, 100% of the participants administered high-voltage shocks.

In these examples, actions, not words, make the difference. As professionals, we need to handle our emotions, not let them get the better of us.

We can deflect words meant to trigger us, and we can use words to absorb tension and gain compliance.

Use words to engage, absorb tension via empathy, and de-escalate a situation.
Use words to engage, absorb tension via empathy, and de-escalate a situation. Photo “Holy Warrior” by Thomas8047, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

You’ve heard the Golden Rule, to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the context of persuasion, the Golden Rule means to empathize with someone’s current position (pace them) until he (or she) feels you understand him, and can lead him to a desirable outcome.

Dr. George J. Thompson now teaches his Verbal Judo course to police and other professionals across the United States. His book Verbal Judo, co-authored with Jerry B. Jenkins, is packed with valuable information to de-escalate difficult situations and turn them into win-win outcomes.

Moving with someone’s force is the essence of Judo.

10 Things I Learned from “Verbal Judo” by Dr. George J. Thompson & Jerry B. Jenkins

      1. “People hardly ever say what they mean.” This is a takeaway I return to again and again. Don’t make the situation personal. Instead, use your professional face and understand that someone’s words ultimately don’t dictate the outcome of a situation, their actions do. Words are often used as a way to save face. If you become upset or resort to force as a response, you’ve lost control of the framing of the current situation. Persuasion is a verbal game. Keep it verbal, help the other person save face, and lead the outcome to a win-win.
      2. Pacing people to gain their trust requires that you don’t alienate them. Verbal Judo gives us eleven phrases to avoid! A well known example is “Calm Down!” We all know that never works. Any one of those eleven examples can enrage or shut down the person that you’re trying to engage. These phrases communicate that their emotions are wrong. Instead we must empathize with that position while moving the person towards a beneficial outcome. After all, do you like to be told, “Because those are the rules?
      3. Verbal Judo gives us examples of Strip Phrases that the author uses to strip a conversation or insult of it’s power. For example, after an insult Thompson might respond with, “Yessir I understand, that’s right, and I need you to…” This a great example of redirecting force by moving with the force rather than countering it — the essence of Judo. This accepting approach puts the opponent off-balance. In fact, this is a hypnosis technique which confuses the mind. The easiest way for a confused mind to relieve its discomfort is to follow the way out that was given after the “and…”
      4. Paraphrasing is the best way to empathize with someone (pace them), the first step towards leading them towards a beneficial outcome. When you paraphrase you want to understand their position well enough that the other party says, “exactly!” You might need to paraphrase more than once to make sure you understand!
      5. You have various Force Options to gain compliance — six of them as a police officer. In reality, most of us really only have two options, maybe three. Our professional presence is the first, which you can emphasize with your behavior and clothing (enclothed cognitian). This communicates status and authority. Second is your use of language to express empathy, to demonstrate control, and to work to resolve the situation. Our third option (for us civilians that cannot use physical force) would be some sort of penalty against the transgressor. Know your limits. Make the penalty real and credible.
      6. Three Great Arts of Communication: 1, Representation, where we take our ego out of the equation and we act as a representative of our professional organization; 2, Translation, where we work to empathize with the other party to understand what they want; and 3, Mediation, where we reframe the situation, show the other party another way to look at the situation, and give them the choice on how they can resolve the situation.
      7. Your speaking voice has four factors. Your tone is the most important. You must sound sincere and in control. Also be aware of your pitch, pace (speed), and modulation (rhythm). Demonstrate a calm demeanor to help lead other people towards calm. Persuasion is about meeting people where they are, and bringing them into your frame, in a calm and welcoming way.
      8. You want to have an idea of how an encounter will play out. This is your frame. Dr. Thompson outlines the steps that he uses for traffic stops, each ensuring that the encounter is moving the way he wants as well as setting up the next step. His steps include: Opening with a Friendly Greeting, Identification as Authority, Giving a Reason for the Stop, Asking for a Justification (because they may have one!), Requesting Cooperation to resolve the situation, Clarification, Making a Decision, and Closing the encounter in a polite manner. Notice how none of these involves emotional battles. How can you implement this approach in your confrontations or difficult situations?
      9. Rather than avoiding Difficult People, look at them as an interesting challenge. They’re the people who can make or break your control and authority. By working with difficult people you have a chance to sharpen your Verbal Judo skills, understand your emotional triggers, and improve your professionalism.
      10. Give praise when it’s deserved. Praise in behaviors builds confidence and rapport. On the other hand, if you have criticism, never open with praise. You don’t want future praise to be associated with a critique that may or may not follow. If you have criticism, open the conversation and criticize the behavior, not the person. Close with praise if it’s appropriate, or with a non-emotional punishment if that is the right choice.

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Honestly, there is so much in Verbal Judo that I can’t cover it all.

We completely skipped the 5 Step Hard Style where we learn how to appeal to people’s self interest.

We didn’t cover the importance of Identity and people’s need to maintain that identity, even under threat (especially under threat).

We didn’t touch on the multiple acronyms that the authors provided to condense information.

There is much more.

"Verbal Judo" teaches you to redirect verbal aggression as a Professional
“Verbal Judo” teaches you to redirect verbal aggression as a Professional

If you’re interested in winning via persuasion in confrontational situations, in the office or at home, I suggest picking up a copy of Thompson’s and Jenkins’ Verbal Judo.

It’s a wealth of knowledge that I’ve returned to more than once since finishing this 200 page book.

Have you read Verbal Judo? Tell us your biggest take-away in the comments or tell me what I missed!

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