Verbal Judo

October 31, 2001 2 min read

Rick Lewis offers teachers a choice of two responses for dealing with a student who won’t stay in his seat.

His blue eyes placid, his voice nearly serene, the safety trainer says: “I see you’re out of your seat. Is everything OK?”

Then Lewis’ eyes narrow to slits. His lips curl into a sneer. “You’re out of your seat again?” he asks, his face rigid with outrage. “Sit down!” he barks in a voice like gunshot.

The latter method might work in the short run, Lewis says during an early-October demonstration in his office at Boynton Beach High School, which is part of the Palm Beach County school district. It may also provoke the student to lash back. Or it may leave him feeling resentful, inviting even bigger problems in the future.

Then there’s verbal judo.

A language strategy for dealing with difficult people, verbal judo was designed by college professor, police officer, and martial artist George Thompson. It uses the martial arts technique of “moving with an adversary’s energy rather than resisting it.”

Turning teachers into “verbal judo artists” is part of a multifaceted effort under way in the 152,000-student district to improve school safety and help teachers manage their own classrooms.

Here’s how verbal judo works in response to a typical classroom discipline problem, talking out of turn:

  • First, address the student by name, making the confrontation as private as possible.
  • Briefly describe the student’s action: “I noticed you were talking with your friend.”
  • If possible, say something that recognizes the behavior is OK in another context: “You know, I like to talk, too. I especially like to talk to my friends. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
  • Use a “negative assertion-statement” to disarm the student: “I’m not saying you can’t ever talk to your friend.”
  • Offer the student a way to address his need while allowing your needs to be met: “If you can agree that you’ll pay attention, you and Michelle will be able to sit together the rest of the day. If that’s not working out, I’m going to move one of you. Fair enough?”
  • Get the student’s commitment to the plan: “Good, we have a deal.”

“Now, if I look over five minutes later, and there you are chatting with your friend, I don’t have to get all irate about it,” Lewis says. “I can say: ‘Our deal was that you’d be able to sit together only while you paid attention. So come on over here. You’ll have another chance tomorrow.’ ”

—Darcia Harris Bowman