Listening is an invaluable skill in everyday life. A good listener is able to truly tune in to what his friends are saying, what’s going on around him, and what needs to be done. Listening is the skill of taking in and processing information so that, when the person/situation is done talking, the listener can make an appropriate response.
Listening in the dojo is crucial, both on the physical and intuitive/feeling level. It’s a given that you should be listening to your instructor. After all, he/she is the one with the experience and authority to lead class. If you think you’re more advanced than him/her, that’s fine–you should welcome the opportunity to humbly listen to someone else and learn even more. Your partner also deserves your attention. Both of you are there to work through the technique and help each other out. Talk to each other; you’d be surprised how much it helps to ask them how something you’re doing feels on their end.
Getting more on the feeling side of listening, it’s important to hear what your body is saying. Are you off balance or in danger? Are you at the limit where something might break or tear? In a similar fashion, listen to what your partner’s body tells you. Different body types may require you to alter your footwork so you can take their balance, for example. Every body has different thresholds, too, so listening will better enable you to gauge how much force is enough to do the job it’s intended for; I haven’t practiced as much with listening in this particular area, so I’m just theorizing.
I was at a seminar a couple years ago, and a Shihan there made an analogy that has stuck with me and continues to hold true. She described a fight as a debate: The best debater will have prepared his case and filled as many holes as possible by studying the other side as well. He will listen to the arguments of the opponent (not hear a couple words and then focus solely on his response) and defend his own side while attacking holes in his opponent’s argument. And he will know when it’s wise to hold his tongue, enticing his opponent to push further until he falls into a trap. The key is to listen to the other person and “listen” to the rhythm of the encounter.
Obviously a fight goes at a much quicker pace than a debate, but the key points are still there: Minimize and protect the gaps in your defense well; strike back well, attacking exposed weak points; and know when to advance confidently and when to change tactics.
Looking at the various instants we practice in the dojo, one thing I see a lot (and often find myself doing) is not listening to what my partner is telling me physically. The result is trying to force a technique that would go much easier if some other thing had fallen into place properly and completely missing the obvious available alternative. If your attack doesn’t work for some reason, then at least it drew your opponent’s attention to that area; you can switch gears and [hopefully] catch him off guard. Don’t mistake what I’m saying as free license to just keep changing when something isn’t working–you should be able to do the technique as it’s taught before you start playing with henka (variations). But don’t stop up your ears, either, and charge full bore into a wall.
Have you ever noticed a difference between when you’re only thinking about yourself and when you open up to listen? Did you feel a difference? How did you make that shift? (These questions apply mostly to training, but also to everyday life.)