Bushido

Above image: A famous samurai warrior-poet, Miyamoto Musashi.

Imagine, you’re about to have a conversation with your partner about your relationship. There’s something you’ve been meaning to bring up with them. It’s been gnawing at the back of your mind for a while now, and things have been steadily getting worse. Maybe it’s something small like doing the dishes. Maybe it’s helping out more around the house, or being more inquisitive and attentive during conversations. It could also be something bigger, like needing them to cover their fair share of expenses, or opening up your relationship to non-monogamy.

Whatever it is, there is a distinct possibility, or at least a fear, that the conversation could end the relationship. This is where thoughts of controlling the outcome usually come in. Questions arise like

  • “How do I bring it up?”
  • “How do I get them to say yes?”
  • “How do I say it without hurting their feelings?”

Let me tell you, it’s these questions and the concerns behind them that prevent the conversation from going the way you want, or even having the conversation in the first place. You tiptoe around the topic so much that it’s unclear what you’re asking for. Then when it finally comes out, it’s stated in such a wishy-washy way that there’s no clear answer as to whether or not they’re agreeing to it, and what to do next.

It could sound like this, “Hey it’d be really nice if the kitchen were clean when I got home.”
Then the response, “Ok.”
And subsequently no change in their behavior. The issue remains, and now there’s more frustration for both people. You’re frustrated because you thought you made a clear request and nothing happened. They’re frustrated because they can tell you want something but it’s not clear what you want them to do about it.

This is where the idea of Bushido comes in.

Bushido (n):

  • the code of honor and morals developed by the Japanese samurai.

There’s a lot of information about what Bushido means in terms of values, rituals, and actions. I’m not going to go too deeply into those. I’m going to focus on a single aspect of it that is useful as an analogy to navigating relationships.

Before a battle, samurai aren’t spending their time practicing or training. They’re getting their affairs in order in case they die. This includes:

  • Assigning someone to look after their family;
  • Making it clear who gets what property;
  • Giving everybody time to say goodbye.

Why is this important?

A samurai, or any soldier for that matter, that enters battle with their mind on trying to avoid dying, will not be optimally effective. They will spend their valuable time and mental energy worrying about their loved ones, or thinking about the bickering that will happen over their property, or the things that nobody got a chance to say. These concerns make their mind and their actions slow. They won’t be able to respond as quickly or as appropriately to what’s happening on the battlefield. That is what makes the difference between victory and defeat.

A samurai who has taken care of these things beforehand has a clear mind and steady hand. He acts swiftly and decisively. He has accepted the worst case scenario and is emotionally prepared when he faces it. In this way, preparing for death and defeat is what leads the samurai to victory.

What does this look like in relationships?

I’ve definitely used this in my relationships. My life today wouldn’t look the way it does without it. One of the biggest impacts this has had is with my mom. At the time, my mom and I had a boundary in place. We agreed to have an encouraging and supportive relationship. The agreement (which is still in place) is this:

  • During a phone call, if either of us feels that the conversation is not encouraging and supportive, we will say, “This is not encouraging and supportive.”
  • We can then hang up if needed.
  • The other person can call back to talk about it, but once it becomes not encouraging and supportive, we can hang up again.

Back in 2017, after I’d already decided to be a coach and was choosing what type of coach to be, I finally chose to be a relationship coach. This was different from what my mom wanted, which was to be a business/executive coach. I called her to tell her my decision.

Her response:

  • “You haven’t had a full time job in years.” (I was a full-time law student, then spent a year studying for the Bar)
  • “You need to prove to me that you can hold a full time job.”
  • … and more yelling.

After about a minute of this, I decided to enforce our agreement.

“Mom, this is not encouraging and supportive. I’m hanging up now.”

She started, “You don-”
*click*
I hung up.

I didn’t hear from her for 3 weeks, and then a text message (paraphrased):
“I’m not going to talk with you about your career any more. The job market now is so different from when I was your age.”

This was, effectively, the first time in my life that my mom apologized to me. Since then, there has been no yelling or any other conversation that wasn’t encouraging and supportive.

What does this have to do with Bushido?

Once I hung up the phone that day, I had no idea what was going to happen. Did she ex-communicate me? Disown me? Was she ever going to contact me again? We might never talk to each other again for the rest of our lives.

And yet, in order to enforce our agreement, I needed to be ok with all of that. If I were worried about hurting her feelings, or trying to avoid hanging up on her, I would not have been able to take the action that effectively led to creating my relationship with my mom the way that I wanted it. In short, preparing for and confronting the worst-case scenario is what led to this victory.

Another depiction of Miyamoto Musashi. He is a popular art subject.

What does this have to do with you?

Reflect on your life.

  • Are there conversations you’re avoiding because you’re afraid of a certain outcome?
  • When you finally do have the conversation, do you find yourself “watering down” your communications with so much politeness and niceties that your request is unclear?
  • What does it mean for you to apply this aspect of Bushido to your relationships? What would you need to do?

Please tell me what came up for you. I’d love to know!
You can email me: Steve@CoachSteveYang.com

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