C-Suite Advisory

Master Communication Competency By Becoming a Samurai Listener

We tend to treat soft skills as traits you are born with or otherwise mysteriously acquire. But while the ability to listen well is deemed a soft skill, it can be cultivated and become the core competency needed for advancing your career. Think of communication in business settings as comparable to reading an opponent in the martial arts. If you develop this skill, you’ll be able to listen effectively, distinguish opportunity from danger and avert conflict.

In any martial arts practice, failing to listen or to be receptive means you’ll get hit. Therefore, practitioners of martial arts learn to focus intently to sense their opponent’s next move.

Active listening is the art of being able to perceive another’s intention. Research shows that active listening while engaged in conversation results in better understanding and better outcomes. Several elements are involved in active listening, including giving and discerning nonverbal cues, managing emotions and paraphrasing to clarify the message.

By mastering active listening, you’ll find that people treat you differently. You’ll be promoted more quickly, receive raises more frequently and find that others turn to you for advice more readily. In other words, by becoming a Samurai listener, you’ll transform into a leader.

Follow these practices to become a Samurai listener:

  1. Verify understanding.Active listening isn’t passive, but involves working to understand another’s perspective. It may include paraphrasing and repeating what a speaker has said as a way to ensure that you accurately comprehend the meaning.
  1. Widen your field of vision.When looking at a computer screen or staring at a personal device, 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.
  1. Perceive body language.Use your observational skills to read the body language and nonverbal cues that help you monitor when you’re heading into dangerous territory. When people are receptive, they act in a receptive way. They have open arms and often nod and smile. On the other hand, people who aren’t receptive show it with changes in posture, such as crossing their arms, frowning, head shaking or looking away. These are signs that you’ve run into a roadblock with your listener and more talking won’t help. Stop and ask, “What’s your view on this?”
  1. Master the art of drawing out others.Be the inquisitive person instead of the person with all the answers. Try to ask questions and listen 80 percent of the time. Even after asking a question, follow up with another question to clarify information. Become masterful at drawing out introverts. If you’re the facilitator in a meeting, go around the table and allow everyone to weigh in. At the end of the meeting, review the list of to-dos and have a “sign off” from each participant.
  1. Avoid interrupting others.Conversations that involve interruptions become choppy and convoluted, and participants are unable 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. All successful conversations — from sales calls to interviews to resolving conflicts — involve give and take. Pay attention to the root causes of your tendency to interrupt and watch out for them before they become habitual and hurt you professionally.
  1. Diffuse 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, blood pressures rise and nostrils flare. Listening vanishes. Realize that an argument doesn’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 and take the blame. Forget about yourself and focus on the other person’s intentions.
  1. Become aware of personal biases.Racial bias, obesity bias, gender bias and age bias are some of the biases people possess. We also have bias against certain behaviors, such as aggressiveness or shyness. Even those of us who think we’re untainted from these perspectives 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 approach active listening the way that a Samurai warrior approaches an opponent, you will learn to better handle conflict, express respect for clients and associates and, ultimately, transform into a leader to whom others defer.

Have you read?

Cash Nickerson’s new book The Samurai Listener (Post Hill Press, March 6, 2018) applies the skills of the Samurai to business strategies.

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Cash Nickerson
Cash Nickerson is chairman of AKKA North America’s Business Unit. He was President, CFO, General Counsel, and the second largest shareholder of PDS Tech prior to its purchase by AKKA Technologies. Previous roles include attorney and marketing executive for Union Pacific Railroad, associate and then partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago, and chairman and CEO of an internet company. He teaches Negotiation as a Professor of Practice at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Law. Nickerson has authored several books, with his latest book, Negotiation as a Martial Art: Techniques to Master the Art of Human Exchange (Made for Success, July 2, 2021), named “Best New Release in Business Negotiations” by the Wall Street Journal. The book is featured in the CEOWORLD magazine's annual review of "Best Books to Read."

Cash Nickerson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.