Elite military units use focused listening to save lives in battle. Imagine what a little focused listening could do for you in your everyday life.
A friend of mine served in a special forces unit in the Middle East. Among the many skills and protocols they learned, one of the most valuable was also one of the simplest. They were instructed only to listen.
According to my friend, whenever he arrived in an area where hostile enemy forces might be hiding, he was required to spend five minutes listening before doing anything else. That is, before taking one step forward, before taking any action that might betray his position, he was to block out all other distractions for five minutes and simply listen to every sound he heard.
What was the purpose? He told me that after a short time, your mind settles down and you begin to hear everything around you very clearly. If there is any slight stirring in the bushes that might indicate enemy soldiers, you hear it. If someone cocks a gun, you hear it. If someone pulls the pin on a grenade, you hear it.
When the soldier can clearly hear the sounds around him, he can act accordingly. Know where the enemy may be hiding, or that he is about to shoot or throw a grenade, and a soldier can literally save his own life. Fail to hear these sounds, and he won’t know what’s happening until it’s too late.
The Benefits of Listening
It’s become a cliché that people need to learn how to be good listeners. What's usually meant by that is the ability to hear the content of what the other person is saying, as well as any meaning that may be lurking behind the content. There are some tried and true techniques to become a better listener according to this definition.
The kind of listening my soldier friend practiced, however, is more basic, and potentially more powerful and far-reaching. When you can spend five minutes doing nothing but listening to what is around you, the endless (and unproductive) thoughts in your head slow down. You become much more calm, and from that place of calmness are able to operate more effectively and make better decisions.
As your mind stills and you tune in to your surroundings, you enter into a state of relaxed focus that is almost a superpower when used to complete whatever work is in front of you. At the same time, the heightened awareness that comes with actively listening to your surroundings will naturally make you a better and more empathetic listener.
And yes, if you happen to be in a place of danger, your heightened awareness might just save your skin.
How to Listen – The “Grasshopper” Exercise
If the description of my soldier friend focusing deeply on the sounds around him seems a little familiar, it’s probably because you’ve come across a Hollywood version of this military skill. In the iconic TV series, Kung Fu, Caine, as a young disciple at the Shaolin temple, gets his nickname “Grasshopper” through a similar exercise.
Upon meeting the blind Master Po for the first time, Caine exclaims, “You cannot see.” After demonstrating that he can more than hold his own in combat through using his other senses, Po admonishes Caine, “Never assume that because a man has no eyes, he cannot see.”
Po then instructs Caine to close his eyes and asks him a series of questions. “What do you hear?”
Caine listens for a moment and volunteers, “I hear the water. I hear the birds.”
Po probes further, “Do you hear your own heartbeat?” Caine admits that he does not.
Po continues, “Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?”
Caine looks down, surprised to find that there indeed is a (near-) silent grasshopper on the ground beside him.
Caine exclaims wondrously, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”
Po retorts, “Young man, how is it that you do not?”
This simple exercise that worked so well for my soldier friend behind enemy lines, and for Master Po on a Hollywood set, can work wonders for you as well. And it really is simple: Close your eyes. Start listening. That’s it.
To ease into this, you can ask yourself, as Master Po asked Caine, “What do you hear?” Then just step back and listen. To make this exercise more concrete and give you better focus, you can verbalize to yourself what you hear, or even speak it into a recorder.
To delve deeper, you can then ask yourself what kinds of sounds you hear. Are there intermittent sounds? How far apart are they? Do you hear one-time sounds? Are they long or short? Do you hear any sounds that are continuous? Loud? Soft? Near you? In the distance? Inside you (heartbeat, breathing, etc.)? Animals? Vehicles or machines? People?
If your thoughts start to intrude, simply turn away from them and back to the sounds in your environment, much as you would turn from your thoughts to your breath in meditation.
Five minutes of nothing but listening will seem like a long time. If you find five minutes challenging, you can start with just a minute. But gradually lengthen the amount of time with each attempt as your listening can really deepen during the latter part of the five-minute period.
This is a great exercise to try just before engaging in an activity that requires your full focus, such as completing a work assignment or starting a sensitive conversation. You can also do it while out for a walk, or while waiting in line at the grocery checkout just as easily as while sitting in a chair at home.
If you do this regularly even a few times, you will be surprised at what you hear. You will notice sounds you had no idea were there. And this in turn will heighten your overall focus, allowing you to function with a higher level of awareness.