The Art of Mental Judo


Mental Judo

“Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”

Judo is a Japanese martial art meaning “gentle way.”

One of my manager’s at Microsoft referred to my colleague’s ability to influence others as “Mental Judo.”  My colleague was highly effective at influencing others in a gentle way, whether it was to share his own opinion, help others see another perspective, or to find another path.  His approach was highly effective and surprisingly simple.

His mental judo boiled down to three things:

  1. Ask questions over make statements
  2. Share a story
  3. Ask somebody to share their story

Ask Questions
Rather than just make a statement or take a strong position, my colleague would ask questions. His questions created curiosity.  He invited people to explore the path.  His soft approach made a safe haven to explore an idea, without making people defensive and without coming across like an immediate critic.

Share a Story
Everybody loves a story.  My colleague was a good story teller.  His stories were short and insightful.  Rather than just state a conclusion or tell somebody they were wrong, my colleague would simply share a relevant story of his first-hand experience.  You can argue facts, but you can’t argue somebody’s experience.  His stories were a gentle way of sharing an alternative view.

Ask About Their Story
Asking somebody to share their story, is a simple way to see another point of view.  When somebody shares their story, they take you on their journey.  You can learn their mental model.  This helps explain why they see the situation as they do.  Together, this helps explain what’s behind their conclusion, and it puts their drivers and concerns in context.  It also helps you know whether this is first-hand experience, or hear say, etc.  It all starts so simply too … “Can you tell me about a time when you used that?”


  1. I tell you J.D. – I love the simplicity behind this. I fall into the grasp of influence from a good story and open-ended conversation. So, I can quickly see how effective this is. One thing I need to work on is my story telling – I tend to jump over the details and get to the point, which has the tendency to throw people off, or decrease interest during the journey. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Love it! I’m going to remember these points. I especially like the idea of asking someone to share their story, with the intent of learning from their mental model.

  3. Hi J.D.
    This is perfect. The idea of getting someone to share their story is brilliant, because it does help us to see where they are coming from. It gives us a feel for who they are. I have an important meeting on Friday and I’m going to use these 3 tips in order to facilitate great communication! Thanks J.D.!

  4. I love this JD. It is simple and empowering. I spent many of my early years employing the “Bull in the China Shop” approach. While it can be effective it served to reinforce bad habits in myself… habits that I needed to be done with to have true personal growth. I’ve noticed the kinder, gentler approach is for the good of all concerned. It serves to enhance an idea rather than simply have one person get their way. There is much more wisdom in the practice of Mental Judo.

  5. @ Jk — These are simple but powerful ways.

    There are actually three secrets behind why these techniques work:
    1. Motivation and Ability – Whenever you want to influence, you can quickly check whether somebody “wants to do it” and “can they do it.” The stories can help create motivation. If somebody already has the motivation, you can usually just skip the details and take a fast path.
    2. Emotional Connection – If you win the heart, the mind follows. If it’s pure information or date, that won’t inspire or win the heart. Stories engage the heart, while the right questions engage the rational mind, so you can get the system working with you. It’s powerful stuff.
    3. Empathic Listening – I heard Stephen Covey say empathic listening is the #1 listening skill. It’s not whether you heard somebody, it’s whether they *feel* heard. Once they feel heard, they’re more likely to want to fully listen to you.

    @ Steve — I once heard that the secret in life is finding the right mental model, and the biggest dissatsifaction in life comes from crossed-expectations. Crossed-expectations is often the result of different mental models. This little insight is a powerful lens and once you know to look for it, you see it every day.

    @ Dandy — Good luck with your meeting on Friday, and as one of my mentors put it, “Luck is when skill and opportunity come together.”

    @ Clearly Composed — One of the rules I’ve learned to live by long ago is, “live more, learn more, laugh more, love more.”

    @ Rob — I really like the way you contrasted with the Bull in the China Shop approach. At Microsoft I’ve been able to see both the hard and soft styles of questioning, and I’ve really appreciated the executives that smile, stay friendly, and keep rapport while asking the tough questions. They’ve learned to balance their connection and conviction and it’s a powerful way to find a way forward.

  6. Hi JD. I like the idea of mental judo and have noticed that I have to be careful when asking questions. I suppose there is an art to that, too. People can become defensive when asked a question, so combining that with the invitation to “tell the story” as opposed to answering the question is a great approach.

  7. …and the other thing about inviting someone else to share a story is the value to put on that relationship – and on the person sharing the story. That’s something I know that draws me closer to someone, when I’m invited to share…

  8. Your colleague sounds really wise. You are lucky to have colleagues like him. I love the idea of telling stories in order to share inner wisdom. I try to weave stories into the blog posts that I write. It stretches me on my creativity skills and at the same time, help me better bring my ideas across.

  9. @ Davina — There definitely is an art to asking questions. Stories seem to help set the right stage. It must be an ambiance kind of thing.

    @ Lance — Well put. In one of my training sessions, the instructure used the mantra, “share the air.” There’s a lot to be said for sharing, caring, and building trusting.

    @ Eveyln — One of the things I’ve noticed on your blog is your gift for telling stories. You have a beautiful way of sharing insight.

    @ Vered — It’s mental judo at its finest.

  10. Great article, JD. I really like the hands-on, simple approach which makes it easier to implement into your leadership style or realtionships! Thank you for sharing.

  11. JD,

    All the points you mention are wonderful ways work with others energy. As well, they offer a chance to direct someone in the direction you may want to take them without explicitly telling them so. Open-ended questions are very important as well as using restatements. Restatements offer the chance to build rapport and show you’re listening while being able to think about what the best thing to say would be. Thanks for sharing!

  12. JD,

    The business stories of success often center on the aggressive, no-nonsense business leaders and operational managers who forcefully obtain results. Forgotten many times are the other managers and business leaders you describe who engage in mental judo. They too are highly effective in getting results. They often do this through their exceptional ability to influence others to act. They do not have to be “in the limelight” all of the time but they are just as clear about what needs to be accomplished. What you describe is about engaging others. Leaders and managers who engage others (instead of just solely directing others) get better results.


  13. JD: Great post and great point. Nice and easy to understand and most importantly apply. I do think what you said is interesting and I agree that there are ways we can influence others when we approach things in the right way. Really good information here … thanks for passing it along.

  14. @ Adrenalyn — Thank you. Hands-on and simple really seems to be both timeless and effective.

    @ Joe — I like your point on restatements.

    @ Robert — Well put and so true — “leaders and managers who engage others get better results.”

    @ Sibyl — Thank you. I think a real key to influence is being open to being wrong. Openness helps balance conviction with connection.

  15. Hi JD .. so right – but my gosh is it difficult not to be opinionated .. it seems to be almost inbuilt! I do share stories now .. at least that thought gets out – even if they’re intransigent in their thought process, or there isn’t much time.

    Then again – I do ask questions all the time .. but I must remember to ask people to share their stories over a subject .. and I love the process “can you tell me a time when you used that?” – because it then cannot be hearsay .. unless that’s their reply – which would tell us what’s behind their conclusion/thought.

    Thanks great power of 3 and mental judo – simple to remember .. Hilary

  16. @ Hilary — Yes, it can be tricky not to be opinionated.

    In fact, maybe the key is actually just being able to hold multiple opinions. Think of it like having a collection of opinions at your fingertips, yours and others to choose from (I’m visualizing a fan of cards at my disposal).

    In fact, here’s the trick. It starts by setting your frame of mind to seek more opinions. One way to do so is to ask yourself, “How might that be true?” or “How do they see it the way they do?” You can then map out their perspective as they lead the way, and find the common bridges or true points of contention.

  17. Hi JD .. well put – thank you! It’s just a different type of ‘work’ I’m basing my answers/queries on .. eg Nursing Home – relative (obo mother) and then sister v family .. luverly non-combination at times!!

    But I can see I certainly need to remember this perspective and approach .. I am getting better .. but boy I get frustrated with the above sometimes .. !!

    Cheers Hilary

  18. dear author,

    i liked your article very much. your article has made me more intrested about mental judo.

    would you please suggest me a book about mental judo if there are any?

    • Thank you.

      Here are a few of the best:
      * Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, by Rick Kirschner
      * How to Click with People: The Secret to Better Relationships in Business and in Life, by Dr. Rick Kirschner
      * Insider’s Guide To The Art Of Persuasion, by Dr. Rick Kirschner
      * Insider’s Playbook, by Dr. Rick Kirschner
      * Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion, by Jay Heinrichs

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