Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I’ve always been a sucker for those ‘70s kung fu movies, starting with Bruce Lee’s “Fists of Fury” and ending with … actually, it hasn’t ended yet. I still really enjoy them, the old ones and the new ones. And I always walk away from them thinking that by some mythical process of osmosis I have suddenly mastered all the moves I had just watched in the movie. I walk more confidently. I breathe more deeply. I feel my muscles (or at least I feel where they should be) flex and reflex. I am more aware of my surroundings.

Recently I watched an episode of the early ‘70s TV show, “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine as a Shaolin Monk and martial artist. The show features flashbacks to Kwai Chang Caine’s (Carradine’s character) training period.

In this particular show, the following flashback conversation between Caine and Master Po, ensued in the middle of a peaceful scene.

Master Po (to the young Caine): Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Caine: No.
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

Obviously, Master Po did not really expect that his young student would hear things to the same depth and clarity as he did, but he planted the expectation that Caine would be able to at some point. And eventually Caine did.

It made me wonder: how many grasshoppers in life do we never hear and never notice because we do not listen deeply enough? How many of my family members, friends or even strangers, have I failed to respond to truly appropriately, because I wasn’t listening deep?

I know, it was just a moment in an old TV show. But the reality is that there are people who, in the middle of babbling brooks and a chorus of birds, are able to hear the grasshopper. And it doesn’t matter if the babbling brooks are the sounds of freeway traffic or the chorus of birds is two- and three-year-olds running amok in the living room, grasshoppers can be heard.

So how do we listen deep?

After all, listening is one of the hardest skills to master and it is rarely “mastered,” even by those in the listening fields. (e.g. Counselors, therapists, etc.) It is in fact, harder to listen than it is to simply be silent.

And yet, people want to be listened to. Sometimes, they need to be listened to. And they need to be listened to deeply.

Stephen Covey, in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” regarded listening important enough to dedicate one of those habits to it. His fifth habit was, seek first to understand, then to be understood. And in order to first understand, you must really listen. Listening is about the other person. It is about their perspective. Their emotions. Their story.

Too often, when we attempt to listen, we are sorely distracted.

You’re not in the mood. You’re being interrupted from doing something “more important” you need to do. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. Why is he wearing that fugly tie? Why did she bathe in that stanky perfume? He’s not important enough to be bothering you. She’s not sexy enough to warrant your attention. And on and on and on. Excuse after excuse for barely listening or even listening at all.

Here are my four tips for hearing the grasshoppers in your life:

1) Decide what you will hear and why. Before we had children of our own, I often wondered why our neighbor would sometimes respond quickly to her child crying and at other times respond with, “Oh, it’s nothing. She’ll be fine,” especially when the crying sounded exactly the same to me. But she had decided that she would know the subtle differences between a “must respond” cry and an “optional response” cry because the health and well-being of her child was a very high priority to her. Later, when we had our own kids, I too learned the nuanced differences in crying and would respond appropriately.

One of my former mechanics had the uncanny ability to, with a great deal of accuracy, diagnose a problem with my car just by listening to it. I asked him how he was able to do it. He simply said, “Listening to cars is what I do. They always have a story to tell and I want to hear their story.” Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a similar trusted mechanic since moving away from that community.

Sometimes you will decide to hear nothing, or only the bare minimum. Other times you will make the conscious and deliberate decision to listen deep. The key is that you make that decision and know why you made that choice.

From children to chariots, deciding what you will hear and why you want to hear it can really make a positive difference in your life.

2) Know the sound without question. My wife is still amazed that in the middle of some loud action movie we’re watching at home, I am always able to hear when the cooking timer goes off in the kitchen. Well, following tip #1, I’ve already decided that I’m going to hear the alarm because if I don’t, whatever we’re cooking may be ruined. But I also know the sound of that alarm without question. I’ve heard it in a quiet room and in rooms filled with noise. I know that sound.

I attended a crime prevention seminar a while ago, and I learned something very interesting from a counterfeit expert. He was able to spot fake dollar bills because he only studied the real bills, never the fakes. Once you know without question or doubt what a real bill looks, and feels, and smells, and sounds like, spotting the fake is easy. Studying a fake bill will only confuse your basis of comparison.

Also at the seminar was an investigator who was fairly good at detecting when a person was lying, by the sounds of their voice. When asked how he did it, his answer was similar to the counterfeit expert’s answer. He researches and studies what people who tell the truth sound like. He establishes a baseline of the sound of truth with each individual he interviews. Deviations from that basic sound triggers an alarm in him that indicates the person may be lying.

A few days ago I walked into an elevator and gave the only other person in it a polite “Hi.” His response was also a polite “Hi.” However, there was a hint of excitement in his voice that went beyond the usual courtesy. So I said to him, “You sound like you’re looking forward to something good.” He opened up and said he was meeting his girlfriend for lunch and he was going to ask her to marry him. Had I not been practicing the art of listening deep, I probably never would have noticed anything beyond the courteous “Hi” he offered back after my greeting. And I would have missed out on sharing someone’s joy.

Knowing what things sound like, without question, will always help you listen deeper.

3) Tell yourself you will hear it, in spite of the distractions. It only took me a couple of times of not hearing the cooking timer, and subsequently ruining whatever we were cooking, to actually tell myself that no matter the sound and sight distractions of movies, or whatever, I would hear the alarm and respond to it.

If you’ve ever toured a newspaper printing room, you know it can be a noisy place. I was asking the press operator a few questions about his job, when he suddenly said, “Excuse me,” and answered his cell phone. Even though I was standing right next to him I never heard the ring. When he was done, I made some comment about the convenience of having a phone that vibrates. He said he never uses the vibrate feature, he just answers when it rings. I asked him how he could hear it ring working next to the rather loud printing press. He told me he used to miss a lot of calls but then he began telling himself he would hear his phone. He said it took him a couple of months, but now he rarely misses a call.

Our brains and bodies seem to respond much better to instructions we verbally, and repeatedly, give ourselves.

4) Practice. Practice. Practice. This is self-evident. One does not usually hear grasshoppers, or engine problems, or almost imperceptible excitement, or whatever you decide your “grasshopper” is, in a single attempt. While the sound of the grasshopper remains constant, the distractions will vary in kind and level and it will take practice to hear it more often than not. The more you practice the better you get at it. The better you get, the more it becomes a habit.

Getting into the habit of listening deep will enrich you and those around you.

Put these tips into practice and you too may hear the grasshoppers in your life.

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