Channel Your Samurai Skills to Become a Master Listener

The ability to listen well is deemed a soft skill, but it can be the crux talent needed for advancing your career. If you think of communication in business settings as comparable to reading an opponent in the martial arts, you’ll recognize how listening effectively allows you to distinguish opportunity from danger.

In any martial arts practice, failing to listen or to 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.

Developing 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 tactics are involved in active listening, including giving and discerning nonverbal cues, paraphrasing to clarify the message and managing emotions.

By approaching active listening as a Samurai warrior approaches an opponent, you can learn to better handle conflict, express respect for clients and associates and, ultimately, transform into a leader to whom others defer.

Become a Samurai listener by following these fundamental practices:

1. Expand your field of vision.

In this age of 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.

2. Discern the meaning of body language.

Body language is a key to signaling when someone is or isn’t receptive to you. People who are receptive, act receptive. Similarly, people who aren’t receptive tend to show it with changes in posture, head shaking or looking away. These are signs that you’re running into a roadblock with your listener. Receptive listeners have open arms and often nod and smile. Non-receptive listeners cross their arms and frown. At this point, more talking won’t help. 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 monitor when you’re heading into dangerous territory.

3. Reconcile your personal biases.

Racial bias, obesity bias, gender bias and age bias are just 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.

4. Curb any tendency to interrupt.

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.

5. Avoid 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.

6. Confirm understanding.

Active listening isn’t passive, but involves working to understand another’s perspective. It often includes paraphrasing and repeating what a speaker has said. 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. Master the art of 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.

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.

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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


Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Lesa D
Lesa D9 months ago


thank you Steven...

Winn A
Winn A9 months ago


Tara W
Tara W9 months ago

Any tips specifically about applying this to text conversations?

Chrissie R
Chrissie R9 months ago

Being that I'm naturally an introvert I tend to be a very good listener.

Margie F
Margie FOURIE9 months ago

Not many people really listen now a days.

John W
John W9 months ago

Good to know

Thomas M
Past Member 9 months ago

thank you

Mona M
Mona M9 months ago

Thank you for this very good article. For how long can we pretend to be the center of the world and forget the needs of others?

Anne M
Anne Moran9 months ago

I’m a good listener,, especially when it’s my own voice... heh,heh,heh....