The Hidden Art of Becoming a Samurai Listener

We tend to treat the ability to listen well as a soft skill, or something with which you are born or otherwise mysteriously acquire. But it can be the crux trait for advancing your career. If you put the art of communication in business settings into the context of reading an opponent in the martial arts, you’ll recognize how listening effectively gives you an ability to sense opportunity and distinguish it from danger. Become a Samurai listener and you’ll know how to handle conflict, speak so people will listen and become a leader that others will want to follow.

In any martial arts practice, failing to pay attention or be receptive will lead to getting hit, and possibly hurt. Practitioners of martial arts focus keenly in their interactions with others to feel or sense what the opponent will do next. It’s similar to what’s referred to in the Star Wars films as “using the Force.”

The ability to effectively perceive another’s meaning and intention is also referred to as active listening. Researchers have found that active listening in conversations leads to better understanding and better outcomes. It takes into consideration how people give and receive nonverbal cues. Masters at active listening also use tactics such as paraphrasing to clarify the message, and keeping their emotions in check.

Approach active listening as a Samurai warrior approaches an opponent using these tactics:

  1. Exercise your peripheral vision.In this age of looking at a computer screen or staring at a personal device, make it a point to step back from your devices and take in a broader view. If you focus in too finely, you become vulnerable in another direction. Learn to take in the big picture and see things others may not see. When you are in a meeting or listening to someone speak, pay attention to more than just the speaker. Train yourself to observe others’ reactions and to recognize the unspoken communication taking place.
  2. Clarify to understand.Active listening involves working to understand another’s perspective. It can include paraphrasing and repeating what a speaker has said to verify the meaning. Try to ask more questions instead of offering all the answers. Master the art of drawing others out. Work to insure that introverts have an opportunity to express their opinions.
  3. Read the message behind body language.Both as a listener and a talker, you need to pay attention to the body language of those involved in a conversation. Nonverbal cues clearly signal when someone is or isn’t receptive to what another is saying. People who aren’t receptive cross their arms, frown, look away and even turn their body from the speaker. Receptive listeners have open arms and will often nod and smile. If another’s body language signals that you’ve headed into dangerous emotional territory, it may be best to stop. Ask, “Do you disagree with me? What’s your view?”
  4. Conquer the urge to interrupt.Cutting off someone mid-conversation is both rude and over-aggressive. Interruptions make it impossible for participants to make their case and result in garbled meanings and messages. No solutions or consensus can be reached with incomplete thoughts and interruptions. All successful conversations — from interviews to strategy sessions to resolving conflicts — involve give and take. Curb making interruptions before you hurt yourself professionally.
  5. Avoid squaring off in conversations.Any argumentative conservation can quickly become heated. In a combative conversation, people are only intent on making their own point, and discussion ignites into an argument. Listening vanishes once members square off, voices amplify, nostrils flare and blood pressures rise. Know that an argument never changes anyone’s mind. The martial arts put emphasis on humility and loss of ego. Forget about yourself and focus on the other person’s emotions. If a conversation devolves into an argument, focus on your breath to remain calm and take a step back.
  6. Resolve your biases.We all have ingrained biases toward certain people and behaviors. Even those who believe they’re open-minded about a person’s gender, race, sexual orientation or body type aren’t likely to be completely without bias. Biases can extend to personality types, such as shy or aggressive people, which can lead to unknowingly disliking others with that trait. Realizing these ingrained perceptions will help to greatly reduce any bias towards others that can hold you back.

Following these practices will help you to become better at showing respect to others, diffuse conflict or misunderstanding, and transform into a Samurai listener — and, ultimately, a leader.

Cash Nickerson Steven “Cash” Nickerson is president and a principal of PDS Tech, Inc., one of the largest engineering and IT staffing firms in the U.S. He has held a variety of legal and executive positions, including attorney and marketing executive for Union Pacific Railroad, partner at Jenner & Block (one of Chicago’s largest law firms), and chairman and CEO of an internet company he took public. He’s an avid martial artist, ranked a third-degree Black Belt in Kenpo Karate, a Brown Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a Russian Martial Arts instructor. Nickerson is the author of several books includingBOOMERangs: Engaging the Aging Workforce in America and StagNation: Understanding the New Normal in Employment. His new book, The Samurai Listener (Post Hill Press, March 6, 2018) applies the skills of the Samurai to business strategies. Learn more at cashnickerson.com.

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