the atemi of committees and policies

This one is going to be a bit of a strange one. One of the early lessons I learned around the I moved to England and started working at Southampton came from the then Secretary and Registrar of the University. He came to the Department to give a session on the University committee structures, and during that session, he said something that’s stuck with me ever since.

Paraphrasing, his point was that by the time a proposal or a policy, anything needing a decision, reached one of the main University committees, it should essentially be decided. It was an interesting lesson he presented, and it’s entirely possible that my memory of that session is not perfect. But it was an interesting lesson that shaped how I started my path of learning to be a member of committees and learning how to be the chair of a committee.

To be honest, I’ve come to disagree with that sentiment, as I think there can be real value in deep discussion at the committee stage. Yes, there are times when extensive consultation takes place and it falls to the committee to distill that consultation and produce a proposal for consideration further up the chain. But there are also times when the final decision falls to the committee. There is a matryoshka effect here, with committees within committees within committees, each playing their own part. Each feeding into the others.

But I want to talk about a different aspect of committee life, one that is inspired by the aikido that I do. There is a particular aspect of aikido that I’ve been paying attention to for a while, namely atemi. In a very direct way, atemi is a strike, possibly a punch, that the person doing the technique executes on the person of the person on whom the technique will shortly be done, not with the intention of wounding but rather with the intention of distracting, for lack of a better term.

It’s a bit difficult to picture, but very very loosely indeed, if for instance someone swings a sword at me in an overhead strike, attempting to do to my head what a knife might do to an apple, then I will step to the side and give them an atemi to their ribs. This has the effect of disrupting their follow up strike and provides me with the time and space to remove the sword from their possession and gently but firmly persuading them of the error in their ways for swinging their sword in the first place.

And so atemi is distraction. But more than this. My favourite description of atemi, a wider translation of the term but one whose origin I’ve forgotten over time, is the taking of another’s mind. So the purpose of my atemi is essentially to so disrupt my opponent’s mind that I have taken their attention away from them.

And this is a useful thing to be able to do in a committee setting, whether it be a deliberative committee or a deciding committee, to give them names. Sometimes it is a very useful thing to do, to distract, to steal away from them the attention of the members of a committee. The most straightforward way of doing this is to put something on the agenda that the chair knows will attract the attention of the members, something controversial, but to have the properly contentious item elsewhere on the agenda. The members may then exhaust themselves on the planted agenda item and not have the energy to discuss the properly contentious item.

I do find it a bit strange that I’m writing about this, potentially giving away one of the secrets to how I approach things, but then I realised that I’m actually not giving away anything. No one knows what I view as the properly contentious items and as the other items. For those on the same committees as me, particularly on those I chair, they might well need to pay attention to all of the agenda items, given that they won’t know which is which.

But now, we take a left turn into the wilderness that is zen. One of the basic lessons of zen, as I understand it at present, is that it is the experience of the moment that demands and deserves our full attention. This is a common interpretation of zen in the martial arts, where each encounter with an opponent has to be experienced fully and has to be taken for what it is, which is a moment that will never come again. And a moment around which we will not get a second chance. This is the zen of the tea ceremony, in which each cup of tea is poured only the once.

One of the things I like about zen is its universality. The same zen that underlies how we experience martial arts and how we experience the tea ceremony, this zen underlies everything. And in particular, it underlies how we experience moments in committees. Zen underlies how we experience those occasionally interesting and awkward moments in committees.

Perhaps I’m overstating the case, but I do think that this is all connected. I do think that all of these different parts of my life impact on and inform one another, and reflecting on my experience of each makes me better at the others. I’ll admit that how sitting in committees improves my aikido is still one I’m working one, but I’m sure I’ll find something there if only I dig deep enough.

~ by Jim Anderson on 10 September 2017.

2 Responses to “the atemi of committees and policies”

  1. THANK YOU! Read and printed out; to be re-read before my Library Volunteer AGM on September 28th…

  2. […] your attention.  In aikido, this is atemi, which I’ve spent a bit of time exploring in a completely different context.  But it’s not a concept that I’ve explored to any depth from the point of view of […]

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