combat, energy, kung fu, martial arts, self defense, Uncategorized

Active Listening Self Defense Training

Have you ever been discussing something with a friend and catch yourself drifting off?  They say something you either agree or disagree with, and your mind begins to respond to their comment; in the meantime, you fail to capture everything they’re saying.  Sure.  We’re all guilty of that.  (Husbands, reportedly, more so than wives. lol)

What I’d like to touch on in this blog is this issue and how we can train our minds to defend us with something called active listening training.

Before I begin, allow me to answer a question some readers are asking: What the heck does this have to do with my self-defense training?  Here are a couple of things to consider when it comes to self-defense:

  1. There are usually signs of the violence coming.  If you’re in the habit of exercising your active listening skills (which we’ll describe in a moment), you’re more able to mitigate that violence (if not avoid it altogether) by acknowledging its coming.
  2. Fighting is a relationship.  If we’re totally invested in forcing our intention on someone else without acknowledging their expressed intentions we are fighting a fight with a limited amount of ourselves (which is a bit like trying to build something with some of the pieces missing).  The better we get at recognizing and understanding our opponents, the better we are at getting our point across.  Therefore, fighting includes active listening.
adult businessman close up corporate
Photo by Spencer Selover on

Inevitably, there are some of you who are disagreeing with me now.  All I can tell you is after years of various conflicts under my belt, I can look back and see the warning signs were there before the conflict.  I didn’t recognize them; because, I was unwilling and unable to do so at the time.  Which begs the question: How could I have avoided those situations – or at least mitigated them – by seeing those warning signs?  Furthermore, I have been blessed to have worked with many martial artists with great skill.  The better they are the harder it is to “see what’s coming”.  Which begs the question:  How does one train to “see what’s coming”?  Believe it or not, what I am about to share with you will help.

Whether someone is speaking and saying something controversial (i.e., something we may not agree with) or something complementary (to what we perceive true), when our minds wander on that point we can (and often do) miss the overall message that person is expressing; instead, we fixate ourselves on that point until something brings us back to the conversation.  As any experienced fighter will tell you, this can be detrimental to the mind-wanderer, as the opponent has free access to our physical selves  via the absent mind.  And, unless you train your attention (not just consciously but wholly) it will be inevitable – regardless other training you’ve received – that you will find yourself in this compromising position.


photo of head bust print artwork
Photo by meo on

Research has shown that everyone experiences these issues, and these issues start on a physical level.  “Your neurons can fire for a while with the energy they have in them, but not for long: After a dozen seconds, each needs more energy,” research psychologist Peter Killeen explains in his work.  This lack of energy creates a deficit in attention.  If we grossly simplify Peter Killeen (and his colleagues’) work, the process looks something like this:

  1. After approximately 12 seconds of effort your neurons are lacking the energy they need to keep going; so,
  2. They look to the glial cells for lactate (i.e., sugar).
  3. If the glial cells cannot find the lactate, they look for glycogen.
  4. If lactate or glycogen aren’t found, the neurons are exhausted; which,
  5. Allows other parts of your brain to call for attention (i.e., your mind wanders to other things).

“A lot of successful … people in general recognize that, ‘I can’t pay attention to this any longer or do it at that rate,” Peter Killeen says. “I’ll switch to this other task right now and get a fresh start. Then I’ll get back to this as soon as I’ve given my brain a rest.”

Thankfully, taking a break isn’t the only option we have to get our work done; otherwise, we would be in a world of hurt in fighting situations.  Wouldn’t we?  It’s not like we can ring a bell and take a break when attacked on the street.  Can we?  Mental breaks are not an option, so we need to train . . . .

What I am about to share with you is an exercise that helps in all aspects of life; one with the potential to take your self defense training to the next level.  You will need yourself and two other people.  (One reason why formal training with capable teachers and other students is so beneficial is that many exercises cannot be understood without others.)

people gathered inside house sitting on sofa
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There are two steps to the exercise, both require that you and someone else sit across from each other and pick a controversial topic to discuss (i.e., something controversial to the two of you); for example, you may want to debate the use of guns in today’s society, or racial issues, or politics, whatever the two of you find controversial.  The third person will be the director of the conversation, telling each of you who starts the conversation, when the conversation ends, etc.

Step 1: 

The director will tell one of you to begin the conversation.  That person shall, then, begin to express their opinions on the topic.  Once the other person believes the point has been made (or requires response) they shall respond and make their point.  This goes on without interruption to allow the conversation to play itself out.

You’ll find things will play out in varying ways including things like:

  • Disengagement.  Someone may say to themselves: I’ve had enough of this guy! And shut themselves off, refusing to take part in the conversation further.
  • Increasing volume.  People may raise their voices, or begin to use vehement bodily gestures along with their verbalized content.
  • Swearing.  People may begin to use inappropriate language – even call each other names – as the conversation goes on.
  • Interruptions.  As the conversation continues the participants may begin to interrupt each other with greater frequency.

When the director has seen enough he/she will stop the conversation.  Stop and breathe.  Stretch.  Relax.  Acknowledge your friendship (which is more important than any debate).  Then, return for step 2.

Step 2:

Pick a different controversial topic to discuss.  The director will tell one of you to begin the conversation.  That person shall, then, begin to express a point of view on the topic.  When the other person believes the point has been made they are to summarize that point and seek acknowledgement that their summarization is correct before they lay their point of view out on the subject.  Once that point has been made, the exercise moves back to the originator of the conversation.  And, so, continues, back and forth.

You’ll learn that the exchange changes when active listening (step 2) is honestly incorporated.  Rather than assumptions guiding emotional responses to the conversation, you’ll find that dispositions are clearer, allowing for greater exchanges and understanding.  This, in turn, brings wisdom beyond the intellectual.

Ip Chun Donnie Yen Chi Sau
Grandmaster Ip Chun performing chi sau with Donnie Yen, actor and martial artist.

After you’ve learned to do this exercise well, you will be able to take it back to your kwoon (i.e., martial arts school) and apply it to your training.  For example, you may be performing chi sau when someone gets the best of you, and ask: How did you do that? When they answer, summarize and seek their approval of your summarization.  Then, after you’ve familiarized yourself with that point, challenge it with your understanding.  (If they ask you, learn to answer them clearly, so they can go through a similar process of learning.  This will help you learn to become a good teacher one day.)

The same is true of a momentary failure on your part.  You may be performing a flow drill and having difficulty executing it properly.  Ask your partner or teacher why.  Then, after they’ve answered you, summarize what you heard and seek their approval of your summarization.  Understanding why something isn’t working can help you focus on what you need to overcome that limitation.

When we engage our activities properly we use less energy than when we do not.  Active listening helps us exercise the mind for nim lik (Chinese mind force principle).  This means we’re wholly involved in what we’re doing, properly invested, and effectively involved – in a sustainable way, in the midst of some of life’s harshest intentions.  So, how does this help us with our attention?  1.) By learning to understand how intentions are expressed (properly and improperly) through the human body we become able to communicate with others’ intentions 2.) while using less energy.  This is done in several ways including but not limited to 1.) eliminating preconceived notions and ideas while 2.) relating to the life-experience in front of you (i.e., living in the moment, setting our minds on only what’s important, etc.); 3.) utilizing others’ energy to reduce the amount we expend expressing our own intentions; 4.) utilizing structural reinforcing forces rather than our limited muscular and structural capacities; . . . . truly, the list goes on and on.

Empower yourself to life!™

©2018 Yost Wing Chun Academy. All Rights Reserved.

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