Chief Instructor: Sifu John C. Loupos - Since 1968

The Value of Listening

by Sifu John Loupos

This article is something of a follow up piece to the front page lead on “anger/restraint” in our last issue. By my way of thinking, martial arts are very much more about conflict avoidance, or resolution, than they are about violence and combat. Such resolution, fir those times when outright avoidance may not be an option, can be accomplished by force if necessary or, preferably, by peaceful means wherever possible. The true martial artist always regards violent force as a last resort, preferring instead to rely either on avoidance or on reason. Reason can take the form of negotiation or compromise. However you accomplish it, “winning by not fighting” is often heralded as the epitome of martial arts skill. You read about this all the time in books and magazines, with noted masters quoted in the various literature as endorsing the virtues of this approach. But how does one really get to that level of expertise? If this is a level of skill you hope to achieve, how can you then proceed to acquire that to which you aspire?

Foremost among those skills sought by advanced level practitioners, and especially those who are teachers, is the less widely sensationalized ability to simply LISTEN. Why? Because of the various senses available us - touch, taste, feel, smell, and hearing - hearing, in its applied form, as ‘listening’, is that sense most likely to cue us in to what may be going on in the minds of other people whom we encounter. As martial artists, we have a vested interest in sensing what others, who are near at hand, may be thinking or feeling if there is any question that our safety or our best interests may be at stake.

Now, prior to my continuing on, let me define my terminology a bit. By ‘listening’ I do not mean simply hearing what others say. Rather, I mean listening to discern, or ‘perceive’, which by my way of thinking is more encompassing in the information it affords us than just hearing someone’s words at face value. Listening in order to perceive allows you to read between the lines of other people’s words, to sense what is meant by their tone and timber, their apparent confidence, the rapidity or slowness of their speech, the significance of their choice of words, or even what their silence may portend. The catch here is that it is difficult for people who have not been trained (meaning most people) specifically to develop an enhanced listening skill to sense for subtleties and nuances in speech. This kind of listening is actually a lot more work, initially, because it requires a dual filtering process. First, you must filter through the words coming at you in order to hear the message that, in many cases, the actual words may be concealing. This is a fancy way of saying that people often don’t say what they mean. Second, you must filter through your own agenda in order to not project unintended meaning into someone else’s words. In other words, you must be careful to not let your emotions of the moment cause you to misinterpret what someone else is saying. This is actually quite common, especially in family communication.

The truth is that conflict is usually caused or exacerbated by poor listening and/or poor communication skills. You may not be able to control how someone communicates to you or at you, but you can control how you listen. As a skilled listener you can offset, or neutralize, someone else’s poor or even predatory communication by recognizing that their real agenda, what is really going on for them, may differ from what they expressing in so many words. As a skilled listener you may even have the advantage of understanding more about someone else’s agenda then they themselves do. Thus, your listening skills can empower you to diffuse potential conflicts before they escalate out of control.

To develop this level of skill for yourself you need only practice. To learn to really listen you must, first, keep your mind open and free of preconceptions. Practice being more interested in the inflow of information, what others have to say, and save your piece until you are sure your response is appropriate to the situation. Second, don’t presume that you automatically ‘get’ what others are trying to say. Practice asking yourself if there might be some second or third version of how someone else’s words might be interpreted (Parents take note). This can be quite enlightening as alternate possibilities begin to dawn on you. Thirdly, try to practice developing these skills on people whom you are closest to. These are the people about whom you are most likely to make presumptions and assumptions. If you can communicate non-presumptuously with close friends and relatives strangers will be much easier to read. Practice like this on a regular basis in situations that are benign and you’ll find yourself better prepared should any actual conflict occur. And remember, you always learn more by listening than you do by talking.

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