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What if you applied martial arts principles to communication? What difference could it make in your ability to make your message heard?

George Thompson argues that Verbal Judo is the most effective way to resolve conflicts and respond to confrontations. He explains each of his method’s principles and how to apply them, even under pressure.

Continue reading for an overview of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion by George Thompson.

Overview of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion

When two martial artists face off, their strategy depends on which martial art they’re practicing. In karate, a precisely timed kick or punch enables a person to stop another’s attack. In judo, which looks more like wrestling, movements at a closer range enable one person to throw the other off-balance and either get them onto the ground or use pressure to force them to yield. In his 1993 book Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, George Thompson explains that people also have different styles of handling verbal conflicts. He argues that, in a high-pressure situation, it’s most effective to act as if you’re practicing judo: to use the other person’s energy to gently move them in the direction you want them to go. 

Thompson (1941-2011) was a law enforcement trainer and founder of the Verbal Judo Institute. Before that, he earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut and studied Rhetoric and Persuasion at Princeton University. After 10 years of teaching, he left academia and became a police officer. He learned how veteran law enforcement officers handled crises and used this knowledge to develop Verbal Judo, a de-escalation technique and “tactical communication” method. Thompson wrote his first book about Verbal Judo in 1983. He went on to train more than a million police officers to handle dangerous situations by communicating clearly and talking people down from violent behavior.

While Thompson developed Verbal Judo primarily for law enforcement officers, he writes that the method proves useful whenever you need to communicate clearly and persuasively in a stressful situation.

Why Do You Need Verbal Judo?

Verbal Judo is a practical method for responding effectively to confrontations, arguments, and conflicts. We all encounter conflict at work, home, school, and elsewhere in our lives. Thompson contends that how you respond in a tense situation can determine the outcome: Either it’ll strengthen your relationships and help you find a resolution that satisfies everyone involved, or it’ll undermine your efforts to solve the problem and leave you or the other person feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and resentful.

If you’re like most people, you don’t always know how to behave when you’re under pressure. And Thompson explains that we naturally handle conflict reactively rather than responsively. When you react to a situation, you act in the heat of the moment. You might get defensive, take things personally, or attack the other person like you feel they’re attacking you. But when you instead respond to a situation, you give yourself the perspective to act in a more intentional and measured way—one that’s much more effective at convincing the other person that you can come to a satisfactory solution together. Thompson contends that by learning to respond using Verbal Judo, you can avoid harming other people, even when the situation gets tense.

What Can Martial Arts Teach You About Communication? 

Since a verbal confrontation can feel like an attack, martial arts like judo and karate offer a useful metaphor for different ways to handle the situation. Thompson argues that it’s most effective to respond to a confrontation like a practitioner of judo: by evading your opponent’s attack, using their momentum to take them off-balance, and gently moving them in the direction you’d like them to go. It might feel more natural to react like a practitioner of karate: by fighting back against your opponent, striking them, and forcing their cooperation. But only when you use a judo-like approach can you channel your opponent’s energy toward reaching a resolution.

Thompson writes that when you use Verbal Judo, you can communicate with other people effectively to reach a resolution that benefits everyone while minimizing the effort you expend to reach that resolution. This method also gives you a less aggressive approach to conflict. That means you protect yourself from getting hurt and avoid bruising other people’s egos or damaging your relationship with them. When necessary, you can disagree with your friends, family, partner, or colleagues, but do so without hurting them. Thompson states that with Verbal Judo to guide you, you can strengthen your relationships as you find more effective ways to communicate with others.

What Are the Principles of Verbal Judo? 

Verbal Judo incorporates three basic principles that help you to communicate more effectively in difficult situations: empathy, a mindset known as mushin, and impartiality. Thompson explains that each one serves a different purpose as you navigate a difficult conversation. By prioritizing empathy, you can turn down the temperature in a heated exchange. By practicing mushin, you can avoid reacting impulsively when you feel the heat. And by adopting an attitude of impartiality, you remind yourself that the temperature isn’t about you. We’ll discuss each of these principles in more detail. 


The most basic tool for practicing Verbal Judo is empathy: the ability to understand someone else’s perspective, even if you disagree with them or their interpretation of the situation. Thompson explains that empathizing with the other person, no matter how unreasonable you might think they’re being, enables you to take the tension out of the situation. That’s because practicing empathy helps you give people what they want: to be understood. Demonstrating that you’re trying to understand what the other person needs and listening to what they’re saying can go a long way toward getting them to dial back their language, even when they’re still feeling angry or upset.

According to Thompson, empathizing with another person doesn’t just make them feel understood—it also helps you see their perspective and understand what they need from you. When you show that you understand the problem and are working toward a solution, the other person will feel reassured that you recognize how they’re feeling. For example, imagine you have to tell your team that a project they’ve been working on has been put on the back burner. Your colleagues might get upset, since they’ve worked hard to finish it on time. To practice empathy, you might acknowledge their work and their disappointment. By validating their feelings, you reduce the tension in the room, even though everyone still feels disappointed.


A second core skill in Verbal Judo is cultivating a mindset called mushin (wushin in Chinese), which practitioners of many Japanese and Chinese martial arts aim to achieve. Thompson explains mushin as a mental state where you remain calm even amid a chaotic situation, intentionally observe what’s happening around you, and stay in control of how you respond. He explains that staying calm enables you to stay centered, no matter how stressful the situation or how much the other person resists resolving the conflict

Thompson notes that cultivating mushin also enables you to let go of any fear or anger that you might naturally, even justifiably, feel when someone is insulting or berating you. Mushin ties into another lesson of Verbal Judo: It’s better to deflect, rather than engage with, verbal abuse, particularly if you work in a public-facing role, like customer service. For example, you might draw on mushin when a customer yells at you because their delivery was late, the shipment was wrong, and on and on with more complaints. Even if you feel frustrated, you can focus on listening calmly. That way, instead of struggling to get a word in edgewise or obsessing over what you’ll say when they finally pause to take a breath, you can focus on engaging more thoughtfully with the conversation and resolving the problem.


A third principle of Verbal Judo is to adopt an attitude of what Thompson calls “disinterest” toward personal insults or attacks that might come your way. It’s one thing to stay calm when someone gets angry about something that doesn’t directly involve you—but it’s quite another to keep your cool when they insult you personally. Adopting an attitude of impartiality means that you don’t take it personally when someone says something hurtful to you, because people often say things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment.

Thompson explains that learning to avoid taking things personally keeps you and others from getting hurt. If you recognize that someone is only saying what they’re saying because they’re feeling frustrated, angry, or scared, then you’ll be less inclined to react to their words by saying things that might hurt them or even damage your relationship in the long run. By adopting an attitude of impartiality and not engaging with attacks or accusations, you can sidestep others’ most hurtful words and instead put the focus back on the issue at hand—like a judo practitioner who wants to dodge an attack rather than to mount an attack of their own.

For example, imagine that you’re at a neighborhood association meeting. If another member rudely interrupts you and criticizes your idea for renovating the community garden as “ridiculous” or “impractical,” you can maintain an attitude of impartiality. Instead of letting the harsh words derail you—and retaliating with some sharp words of your own—you can acknowledge his concerns and refocus the discussion. By staying impartial and deflecting the rude remarks, you keep the meeting productive and sidestep the personal attack.

How Can You Practice Verbal Judo? 

Once you understand the principles of Verbal Judo, there are practical ways you can use them in tense situations at work, home, and elsewhere. We’ll explore how Thompson advises using Verbal Judo to handle conflicts in your day-to-day life.

Read the Other Person

In the same way that a judo practitioner responds to a physical attack with an awareness of their opponent’s intentions, you can respond to a verbal confrontation by reading the other person and figuring out who they are and what they need from the encounter. In other words, you can use empathy to better understand other people and more easily resolve conflicts. To do this, Thompson writes that it’s helpful to learn to recognize what kind of person you’re dealing with. He contends that people fall into one of three categories: 

First are people who tend to cooperate and like to avoid confrontation. Thompson explains that you probably won’t have to use your skills in Verbal Judo when you encounter this sort of person. But he points out that the fact that someone cooperates with you doesn’t mean you should neglect to treat them thoughtfully or respectfully. 

Second are people who resist authority. They might push back on your requests, and Thompson explains that they tend to ask “why?” He explains that you should always give a genuine answer to this question: Answering “why” a particular course of action is best gives you a chance to explain how the solution you’re proposing will help the other person. That makes them more likely to decide to cooperate with you. 

Third are people who present themselves as cooperative but really resent authority. Thompson explains that this person will often speak courteously in the moment and only later complain about you or try to seek revenge. It’s hard to know when someone falls into this category because they aren’t honest about their feelings. But once you’ve recognized that someone is this kind of person, Thompson recommends being direct with them and allowing them to either voice their complaints or decline to do so.

Thompson explains that once you determine what kind of person you’re dealing with, you’ll know how to handle the conversation. With people who tend to cooperate, all you need to do is propose a good solution, and they’ll likely be happy to go along with you. With people who resist authority, you should focus on explaining what they’ll gain by cooperating—or what they’ll lose by refusing—to get them on board. And with people who act cooperative but feel resentful, you should ask them for their opinion: If they have something useful to contribute, they will—and otherwise they’ll just cooperate. The goal is to interact with each type of person effectively but respectfully, using what you know about their personality.

Figure Out What’s Happening

Another important Verbal Judo method is to take the time to analyze the situation—whether it’s a confrontation with a customer, an accusation from a friend, or an argument with your partner—in much the same way that you worked to understand the person you’re dealing with. You want to reach a resolution that satisfies everyone, and you can’t do that until you understand the issue. Thompson advises following four steps to assess what’s going on:

1. Step Outside of Your Point of View

The first step in determining what’s happening is to consider the situation from your point of view and the other person’s point of view. Thompson explains that there’s the problem as you see it and the problem as the other person sees it, and you have to consider both when trying to identify a solution that will satisfy everyone. This may require you to exercise your skills in impartiality. 

For example, imagine you’re arguing with your partner over your finances. If they accuse you of overspending, you could respond by accusing them of being too stingy or of dismissing your needs—or you could think about how purchases that you consider necessary might not seem as urgent to them. You’re each looking at a different problem, and your joint task is figuring out how to solve both.

2. Consider the Other Person’s History

The second step in assessing the situation is to think about how the other person has ideas and a history that differ from yours. By pinpointing these differences, you can remind yourself that the other person isn’t misinterpreting the facts: They simply don’t approach the situation from the same place that you do. 

For example, in the argument with your partner about your budget, it might help you to remind yourself that your partner grew up with a very different socioeconomic background than you did. Remembering what it was like for their family to have less money while growing up might make them more cautious with their spending now. Conversely, your family’s more comfortable economic bracket probably contributes to your confidence in your savings and your comfort with spending more.

3. Determine What’s in Your Way

The third step in figuring out what’s going on in a tense situation is identifying the obstacles blocking your path to a resolution. The other person might have beliefs or personality traits that keep them from agreeing to your ideas about solving the problem. Or they might be feeling strong emotions that will affect their decisions. Thompson writes that you can either find a way to step around these obstacles or directly address them. 

For example, you might learn that your partner feels that if you skip setting money aside for savings for a month, then you’ll never catch up. Once you understand this belief, you can address it, perhaps by sharing your plan to contribute extra to your savings account when you get your bonus next month.

4. Show That You Care About the Other Person 

The fourth step in ensuring you know what’s happening is demonstrating that you understand the other person and that you’re concerned about them and their well-being. Thompson explains that you should make it clear that you want to solve the problem in a way that’s agreeable to both of you. 

For example, you can explain to your partner that you want a budget you’re both comfortable with. You might apologize for not checking in with them about your planned purchase. And you might promise that next time, you’ll have a conversation to ensure you’re on the same page—and you’ll take the time to make the decision together if you’re not.

Leave Your Ego Out of It

After you’ve figured out what kind of person you’re dealing with and determined exactly what’s happening, another Verbal Judo method is to approach conflicts as if they’re impersonal, even when they feel very personal. Thompson explains that people can become antagonistic under stress. They might blame you, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. But Thompson argues that it’s not productive to let your feelings get hurt: It’s more important to demonstrate that you understand the needs the other person is expressing (even if they aren’t doing so in words) than to protect your ego.

Drawing on your ability to enter the mushin state of mind, you can stay calm even when emotions run high. Thompson recommends using two strategies to stay focused on solving the problem rather than protecting your ego: 

1. Acknowledge But Don’t Address Insults

First, Thompson explains that you can make someone feel heard without engaging with personal attacks or insults. For example, if a customer yells at you and says that you and the company you work with are stupid, there’s no need to refute those claims. Instead, you can just make it clear that you’ve heard the complaint and then move toward a resolution with a statement like, “I hear you, and I have an idea about how we can get this resolved for you.”

2. Mirror Their Feelings Back to Them

Second, you can interrupt someone to state what you’ve heard back to them, using the interruption to keep the conversation from spinning out of control and show that you’re trying to understand how the other person sees things. For example, you could say to a friend who’s upset, “Hang on, I want to make sure I’ve got this straight. You’re feeling like I don’t appreciate you because you’ve had to plan our recent get-togethers, right?” Even though you feel that you do appreciate your friend—and you might be tempted to remind them of all of the ways you’ve shown your appreciation—putting what they’ve expressed into your own words shows them that you understand how they’re feeling.

Listen Actively and Openly

The next Verbal Judo method is to put as much effort into your listening as you do into your talking. Thompson advises using a technique called active listening. This kind of listening involves not only listening purposefully to the other person, but staying open to what they have to say and communicating (verbally and non-verbally) that you’re understanding.

Thompson offers a few practical methods you can use to practice active listening

1. Ask Them to Explain 

Going into a tense conversation, you might have some context to work with. But, when you need to know how someone is thinking or feeling, ask them! Thompson explains that active listening can involve asking open-ended questions about what’s happening, what their opinions are, and how they’d like the problem to be solved. As you listen, try to do so without jumping to conclusions or being influenced by preconceived notions.

2. Ask Whether You’re Understanding Correctly

Active listening doesn’t require intuiting what the other person means: When you state a person’s complaint back to them, you can also ask if you’re understanding correctly. This question gives you a practical way to ensure you know what’s happening. And it clearly shows the other person that you’re trying to understand them. This can help them dial things back: They’ll still be frustrated or angry, but they’ll be more likely to cooperate with you to resolve the argument or problem. 

3. Make It Obvious That You’re Listening

Another crucial part of active listening is letting the other person know you’re really hearing them. Thompson argues that appearing to listen closely might be even more important than actually listening closely in de-escalating a tense situation. He recommends using your body language—like making direct eye contact or nodding your head—to show that you’re listening. Or use phrases—like “I understand,” “That makes sense,” or “I see”—to communicate that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying.

Be Persuasive Without Being Condescending

The final method for practicing Verbal Judo in your daily life is to pay close attention to the language you use. Thompson explains that even when it’s your job as a professional (or as a parent) to get someone to cooperate with you, you can do that without using language that feels condescending to others.

Thompson points out that most people don’t respond positively to being told what to do. So, in many cases, just issuing instructions won’t yield the results you want. If instead, you respect the other person’s agency and acknowledge that their cooperation with you is a choice, you’re more likely to get them to go along with what you’d like them to do. Thompson has a five-step method for persuading someone to cooperate: 

  • The first step is to request that they do what you’d like them to do. By clearly articulating what you want to happen, you’re explaining your goal. 
  • The second step is to explain the rationale for your request if the person hesitates to cooperate with you. Explaining “why” you’re asking them to do something makes it easier for the other person to understand the rules or reasoning. 
  • The third step—if they still haven’t been persuaded—is to explain what will happen if they cooperate with you or if they don’t. This acknowledges that they’re making a choice and gives them the information they need to make it. 
  • The fourth step—if the other person still doesn’t want to cooperate—is to ask whether there’s anything you can do to get them to cooperate. You’re addressing the fact that they aren’t going along with you, and giving them a chance to choose.
  • The fifth step, if the other person still declines to go along with the solution you’ve proposed, is to follow through and respond to their lack of cooperation in the way you said you would

For example, imagine you need to ask your roommate to clean up the dishes they left in the kitchen sink. You could start by asking, “Hey, could you please wash the dishes?” (Step 1). If they hesitate, you could explain, “I’ve left dishes in the sink before, and it attracts cockroaches” (Step 2). If they still wave you off, you could say, “If we clean the kitchen when it needs to be cleaned, it’ll be healthier and easier for all of us. If not, we’ll need to create a cleaning schedule” (Step 3). If they still just say they’ll do the dishes later, you can ask, “Is there something I could do that might make tidying up easier for you?” (Step 4). If there’s still no action, follow through: “Let’s make that cleaning schedule, then” (Step 5).

Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion (Overview)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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