Sounds good Mark, this has been my experience also. I have found that this works best when one does not project any sort of "defensive stance" or "readiness to fight" per se. This often encourages the attacker to think that you are unprepared for the attack and "draws him in" or leads him a bit. Good tai sabaki and timing skills will help the Aikidoist close distance in an instant when the attack is launched, even though the attacker thinks he is relatively safe when he launches the attack.
Like you said, staying calm and centred is critical. Do you guys do any specific drills to develop this skill?
I have a number of drills to help students with this. The funny part is that the drills are incorporated in the children's class and show up in their first test. It is easier to help reshape a child's response set because of less history on the response set. For the children, they learn tenkan and irimi movements into shomen strikes and mune tsuki with a bokken (requirements on their first and second tests).
With adults, I like the Systema training philosophy of training movement to be relaxed and centered while slowly ramping up the intensity and speed of an attack. As soon as the initial response set fails, it is important to back down the intensity. This is a function of "rewiring" how the body reacts to situations. These drills focus on connecting to the center of the attacker so that the initial movement and/or contact point results in either kazushi, or the locking-up of the attacker's body, while retaining a relaxed, positive and calm center in yourself. Many people just go through techniques with little thought to the very first point of connection (before contact) through the initial contact point. Frequently, people start their training after contact has been made. I would be very remiss to not point out that this emphasis in how to train was directly learned from my good friend and a teacher to me, George Ledyard Sensei.
Last week, I was working with the adults on entering into attacks from a Jo, rather than flinching or withdrawing (both of which have bad outcomes).
I frequently emphasize to my students that if their initial positions and responses are not good, then all of the techniques in the world that they may know will not be of use to them.
Funny enough, I was going to give this blog another title, which I also use in class. That is "killing them with kindness." That sounds much too violent for us peace-loving Aikidoka
ps.: William, I really look forward to meeting you on the mats sometime in the near future. I am a big fan of your posts!