A lot of consultants have made good money conducting weekend seminars at which they promise participants will learn new, highly effective moves for dealing with workplace conflict and complicated problems. Yet it seems that after a few weeks of evangelical enthusiasm back in the real world participants find themselves right back in the same old ineffective ruts they sought to escape by taking the weekend workshop.
This failure is due to a misunderstanding of what it takes to learn new moves, especially when the new moves are aimed at displacing older, habitual ways of acting in response to typical life stresses and dilemmas.
Moreover, there is an underlying assumption among westerners that further handicaps the process of learning to produce new actions. This is the belief that mere cognitive understanding of how we might put an obviously useful concept to use will actually enable us to perform the new action in a real-world setting. In short, the belief holds that cognitive understanding of how and why to move differently is all that is necessary to actually produce the new move.
Students of Aikido, or any martial art, know that the path of learning new moves is one of regular physical practice, perhaps under the guidance of a qualified teacher. It may help in some ways for students to read books or view video clips to help them understand what they are learning on the mat. But to actually produce increasingly effective Aikido moves in real-time with a real opponent, years of repetitous physical practice to produce these moves are necessary.
The reason that weekend seminars to learn new actions are largely unsuccesful is precisely because learning new moves takes extended physical practice, and that mere understanding of how and why to act, and maybe token practice, does not enable one effectively to produce the new move.
Additionally, participants in programs to learn new behavior often don't realize that they are handicapped by the fact that they already have very well polished and practiced action programs to achieve certain, often conflicting, results in daily life. These existing action programs are automatic and reflexive, that is, we just perform them in situations without thinking about what to do. Often these existing programs are the source of our problems, and they are why we want to learn new moves in the first place; that is, to produce different and more effective results.
An example of such an existing action program is: "own and control the playing field." Fueled by the value of "win, do not lose," this action strategy directs the behavior of micro-managers who cannot delegate anything and are constantly hovering over peoples' shoulders. A catch phrase of this strategy is, "if you want something done right, do it yourself." To displace the action programs that set this strategy in motion in real-world situations takes a great deal of new practice, both physical and abstract. And this practice takes time. Certainly more than a weekend.
Our very impatience, driving us to want and expect instant results, is itself a reflexive habit that inhibits learning. Many of the fundamental physical practices involved in putting Aikido principles to use in daily life are designed to help people slow down the world and cultivate patience at times of stress.
Chris Thorsen and I included some simple practices for physical grounding, slowing down the world, and cultivating patience in Peter Senge's 1999 The Dance of Change. These practices included:
- Decline to react immediately and stop, let your mind find your physical center and breathe into it a few times. Then act.
- Don't answer the phone on the first ring. When the phone rings make the ring tone a cue for you to find your center and breathe into it. Answer the phone on the third ring.
If Aikido is to become a useful guide for how we can produce more effective results through our actions in the real-world, it will be important to develop new real-world-based learning practices and methods of teaching them to people that will actually help people produce new moves when they need to do so.
In this segment I have argued that prolonged physical practice and patience are required to supplant existing action programs we already have polished for use in difficult situations. And I have claimed that weekend seminars and mere cognitive understanding of promising new moves is insufficient to set these ideas into motion.
A question then arises: how to design and conduct learning practices to create the desired results. Do we list all the possible situations of conflict or difficulty people can get into and then work up scripts of new proposed behaviors? Is there another perhaps simpler way? Yes, I think so. It is based on the theory of self-correcting systems, or Cybernetics. Examining how the theory of Cybernetics could apply to training aimed at putting Aikido principles to use in everyday life will be the focus of later installments.