by Cash Nickerson, author of “The Samurai Listener“
In any martial arts practice, failing to listen or be receptive means you’ll get hit – and possibly hurt. As a result, practitioners of martial arts focus keenly in their interactions with others to feel or sense what the opponent will do next.
The combat arts can inform the workplace arts. If you think of communication in business settings as comparable to reading an opponent in the martial arts, you’ll recognize how attentively listening to and observing others allows you to distinguish opportunity from danger.
Having the capacity to effectively perceive another’s meaning and intention is often referred to as active listening. Research shows that active listening in conversations leads to better understanding and better outcomes. Several techniques are involved in active listening, including giving and discerning nonverbal cues, paraphrasing to clarify the message and managing emotions.
Approaching active listening as a Samurai warrior approaches an opponent can enable you to better handle conflict, express respect for clients and associates and, ultimately, transform into someone others look to as a leader.
Become a Samurai listener by mastering these active listening techniques:
1. Interpret the meaning behind body language.
Body language is a key to signaling when someone is or isn’t receptive to you. People who are receptive act receptive. Conversely, people who aren’t receptive show it through changes in posture, shaking their head or looking away. These signal that you’re running into a roadblock with your listener. Receptive listeners have open arms. They often nod and smile. Non-receptive listeners cross their arms and frown. At this point, more talking won’t help. It’s best to stop and ask, “Do you disagree with me? What’s your view?” Use your observational skills to read the body language and nonverbal cues that help you discern when you’re heading into dangerous territory.
2. Honor the give and take.
All successful conversations — from interviews to sales calls to negotiations — involve give and take. Interruptions from a domineering participant become choppy and convoluted, and others aren’t able to express themselves fully. The conversation is like a competitive sports match where the referee is constantly stopping the action. No solutions or consensus can be reached with incomplete thoughts and interruptions. Pay attention to the any tendencies you have to interrupt and curb them before they become habitual and hurt you professionally.
3. Take in the big picture.
Habitually looking at a computer screen or staring at a personal device narrows our field of vision. Make it a point to look up often and exercise your peripheral vision. Focusing too much exposes you to vulnerability in another direction. When someone is speaking, watch how others are listening and responding. Train yourself to observe others’ reactions in order to get a sense of the unspoken communication taking place. Learn to take in the big picture and see things others may not see.
4. Ensure understanding.
Active listening isn’t passive, but involves working to understand another’s perspective. It can include paraphrasing and repeating what a speaker has said. Be the inquisitive person instead of the one with all the answers. Ask questions and listen most of the time. Even after asking a question, follow up with another question to clarify information. Master the art of drawing out introverts. If you’re the facilitator in a meeting, invite everyone around the table to weigh in.
5. Back down from combative conversations.
In a sparring exercise, you can’t learn about defending yourself if you only do the striking. Similarly, competitive conversations in which each person is only intent on making his own point devolve into arguments. Combatants square off, voices amplify and blood pressures rise. At the same time, listening ceases. Realize that arguing won’t change someone’s opinion. Manage your emotions by taking deep breaths. The martial arts emphasize humility and loss of ego. If a conversation ignites someone’s emotions, back down. Forget about yourself and focus on the other person’s intentions.
6. Resolve any biases.
Gender bias, age bias, racial bias and obesity bias are just some of the prejudices people possess. People also have biases against certain behaviors, such as aggressiveness or shyness. Even those who think we’re untainted from these judgments probably aren’t. Take time to reflect about people who annoy you. The very trait that you associate with someone you don’t like will cause you to dislike others with that trait. Understanding this will help you greatly reduce any bias towards others that is holding you back.
When you follow these practices, you’ll find that people treat you differently. You’ll be promoted more quickly, receive raises more frequently and others will turn to you for advice more readily. Become a Samurai listener and you’ll transform into a leader.
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’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 including “BOOMERangs: Engaging the Aging Workforce in America” and “StagNation: Understanding the New Normal in Employment“. His new book,”The Samurai Listener” applies the skills of the Samurai to business strategies.