The notion that learning is in doing, and that the intellectual component of learning has been vastly overemphasized, has been a central theme of this blog.
An exemplar of this practical truth is the art of Aikido, which you cannot learn from reading a book and looking at videos. No, you actually have to get out and do the physical practice, monitor the results of your physical movements, and make assessments about how to move more effectively based on those observations. Often we need help interpreting the training outcomes, and that is where teachers and fellow students come in.
But for all its value, I do not believe that we are able, in any robust way, to transfer the physical learning of Aikido, the blending with and taking care of our adversary, to the everyday world of speaking and listening. Instead, I believe that we begin to act petty, vindictive, manipulative, and controlling as soon as our interests and concerns appear threatened.
Chris Argyris declares that these reactions to threat are not to be considered mistakes or shortcomings, even though they may conflict with our espoused values of collaborativeness, fair play, and considering all sides of an issue. Instead, he says, these destructive responses are expert behavior, fully informed by and consistent with other long-established values we have habitually drawn on to actually drive behavior. These values, or principles, can include: "win, and do not lose," "own and control the field of play," "suppress negative feelings," and "always appear rational." That we are usually not aware of this does not, according to Argyris, absolve us of responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
Argyris's claim is that, consciously or not, most of our habitual problem solving actions, in stressful situations, are designed to enact one or more of these default values. The reason we are so expert at these behaviors, performing them flawlessly and without thought, is that we have already had so much practice. If Argyris is correct, then it is no wonder that these default habits are so hard to deselect, in favor of more collaborative actions drawing on new values such as: "propagate valid information" (don't lie), "don't manipulate people without their consent," and "let people choose for themselves."
The fact that these noble-seeming values are out of sync with our usual self-serving actions doesn't mean we're weak or bad, it just means, according to Argyris, that we're acting consistently with other values, in ways we have practiced all our lives. But it also means we're incompetent to enact the values we espouse, however sincerely; and moreover, we are unaware of this.
The graphic on the left shows an action system designed to act according to the value "own and control the process." Simply adopting a new value, "support collaborative decision-making," will not be sufficient to creating new behavior. If new actions are to become available, they must be practiced, just like the old ones have been.
For Aikido people wishing to act consistently with such values as, "see the other's perspective," "blend, don't fight," and "preserve the health and dignity of everyone in the loop," it may be important to realize that powerful behavioral habits designed to "own and control" the situation and "win at all costs," are already on-line, waiting to be triggered by some everyday life situation.
What's more, these default habits are so well practiced and in our bodies that we will probably not be able to eliminate them. But with conscious practice we can become competent with additional actions, actions consistent with new values more conducive to effective communication in complex situations.
In Aikido practice on the mat it often takes a few years to realize that applying strength to force a technique to completion results in bad technique, and sometimes injury. In such cases, our long-established practice to try and "win" in situations has taken over. In time and practice on the mat, however, we begin to trust that we can apply techniques in ways that do not force people to the ground, but simply use their energy to take them where they were already headed, and in a way that neither hurts nor awakens fighting instincts.
If it takes a long time to be able to create habits of non-fighting effectiveness in the relatively simple universe of the training mat, why wouldn't it take a similar amount of time and effort to learn new actions in the more complex world of everyday speaking and listening?
I think it does take time and effort. If my assumption is correct that we need to practice specific kinds of actions that embody collaborative values in the actual domains in which we will use them, then just studying Aikido on the mat will not help much out in the world. Other habitual behaviors for use in the world will just take over before we can even imagine doing anything different. If correct, then to act differently and more collaboratively in the world, we'll need to design learning methods and practices for situations we are actually likely to encounter out in the world.
Of course, this is how we learn Aikido. Someone punches or grabs you; you execute a technique. If everyday world encounters were full of punches and grabs, then Aikido would be perfectly good training. But the everyday world is mostly full of people speaking and not punching. Therefore, it makes sense that we might need to design different kinds of training to put Aikido values to use in the off-mat world of speaking and listening.
Finally, it makes sense to design the training methods themselves to embody the values that we intend the training to teach. This means, for instance, that methods of teaching that trick or manipulate people, denying them free and informed consent to the process, may be considered inconsistent with the values the teachers espouse, and therefore examples of the very kinds of actions we are trying to avoid.
Indeed, noticing inconsistencies between espoused values and observed actions is an important part of the new methodology. In part 4 I'll try to describe in more systematic detail a prototype methodology for teaching everyday skills of speaking and listening that will embody Aikido values out in the world, and that will be itself consistent with these values.