The Samurai Listener – 3 Secrets to Listening While Under Subtle Attack

You arrive at a meeting several minutes late. You are well prepared for the meeting. The dialogue has begun and points are being made around you. Someone now says something that you know from your preparation is not correct and it is important to reach a better group decision that you share what you know. Right after you share your point that same person says: “Well before you got here, we discussed A, B and C.”

If you are human, your mind is distracted with the concern about being late. What else did you miss? Maybe your point isn’t valid? You are drawn inwardly, away from the meeting and into a bit of self-doubt. You may even temporarily withdraw from the dialogue or conversation because everyone has been reminded that you were late and that means your opinion is not valid or is less valid. And that is precisely what the person wanted who pointed out that you were late. They disagree with you and this is their form of attack.

We Are All Subject to Subtle Attacks 

In organizations, we are all subject to attacks, often subtle, as we compete to be heard and compete to contribute. The subtle attacks are the hardest to handle because they are like clips they used to put in theater and drive-in movies to make us hungry for popcorn or thirsty for soda: they are subconscious attacks that detract from our focus. The workplace is full of subtle attacks designed to send you inward and take you out of focus. The workplace is full also of those who are very good at this technique. There are black belts in keeping you unstable and down.

How do we recognize a subtle attack, deflect or defend against it, and make our contribution? In training Iaido this week with genuine Samurai, I picked up a few listening tips as I worked with these incredible martial artists; I hope they help you as they did me.

Learn to Spot These Subtle Attacks 

The first objective is to learn to spot these subtle attacks designed to take you out of your game. First, as I explained in Listening as a Martial Art, you must be breathing well, without tension, and open and aware. The Samurai are the best at this focus and awareness I have ever met.

Here are are the three steps to handle these subtle workplace attacks:

  1. Subtle attacks are often ad hominem and shift the focus from the topic to you. The rhetoricians who preceded Plato were masters of the attacks on the person. An ad hominem attack isn’t about the subject at hand, it is about you. When subtle, it will be a mixture of an attack on your idea and an attack on you. Perhaps you have been on vacation and someone has said, “Well, while you were gone…”Have you ever heard this, “Well, I spoke with James and he said…” Or, “If you had read such and such…” All of these can sound like they are about the topic, but they are really about you. Step one requires you to spot these attacks and see them for what they are. This requires practice. To hone your skills, watch panel discussions on CNN or some other talking heads show. You will become masterful as you watch politicians use these techniques. Politicians are the samurai of political dialogue, by watching them you will begin to recognize it around you.
  2. Once the topic is you, you need to learn not to take the bait, not to go inwards questioning yourself. When someone mentions a weakness in us or a mistake we made, we tend to turn inwards. We think, “I should never have been late, why did I spend that extra time talking with Bob?” When someone says, “I spoke with so and so and they said…,” we think, “gee, do I have all the facts I should?”It is difficult not to question ourselves when we are subtly attacked like this. Once you recognize these attacks, the moment you hear it, you need to actually react physically to avoid the automatic inward reaction. And I don’t mean to get up and confront the speaker – that would just confirm the ad hominem statement that there is something wrong with you. Moreover, you are now off topic thinking about them! But you do need to have an alarm go off in your head. I don’t care what alarm you like; it can be a buzzer, a bell or your favorite ringer on your phone. But an active warning sound needs to go off, else you will find yourself precisely where they want you: quiet and confused thinking about your own shortcomings.
  3. When the alarm goes off, you need to respond in a way that leaves the personal attack behind and returns to the merits of the topic. You need to distinguish between the content of the issue and the personal attack on you. If you were late to the meeting, you need to say, “I am sorry I was late to the meeting, but that has nothing to do with A, B or C.” “No, I haven’t spoken with Sarah or read the report by Joe, which one of the premises I have, A, B or C, does that change?” And then remake your points you have worked so hard to prepare and so clearly understand.

The Samurai Listener - 3 Secrets to Listening While Under Subtle Attack by Cash Nickerson, Listening, Samurai, @cashnickerson
While training with the Samurai, my son (to the right of me in the top picture above) and I were working with real swords with razor sharp blades. As we trained in drawing the sword and returning the sword to its sheath; these seemingly simple actions were very dangerous. The heightened focus required is hard to describe; likewise with cutting technique.

There is only one way to get to that point and that is practice, practice, and practice. Open your mind and train your sensitivity to these subtle attacks. And when you hear such an attack, do not turn inwards, train yourself to recognize and train yourself to throw a flag or hear an alarm go off in your head.

Practice Deflecting Subtle Attacks 

Finally, practice deflecting the attack and reiterating the valuable points you have prepared. Due to the heavy involvement of human resources in avoiding conflict and infighting in organizations, conflict has gotten more subtle in the thirty-plus years I have been in organizations. So, to succeed, your training needs to be deeper.

I hope my tips I gained in training with the Samurai help you get to the next level.

P.S., Don’t be late to meetings…

I am working on a sequel to my book, Listening As A Martial Art, titled Listen Like a Samurai. You can find Listening as a Martial Art here on Amazon where, after 18 months, without a publisher and without advertising, it remains one of the top business books on sales presentations and other marketing and sales topics, and was a finalist in Book of the Year in 2016 on Sales and Leadership. 
Thanks for listening,
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By | 2017-08-09T08:44:49+00:00 April 10th, 2017|Blog, career advice, listening|