Listen Up

So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.Jiddu Krishnamurti

Active listening. Now this is an underappreciated and underutilized skill. Most people hear, far fewer listen and a precious few engage in active listening. So what is active listening and how can it enhance your writing?

First of all, to truly connect with another person on an intimate, interested basis, each person must engage in active listening. This means hearing a person’s words, internalizing their words and then incorporating their words into your own mental constructs before you offer with a single utterance in response.

Far easier said then done because we often rush to get our thoughts into a conversation before our counterpart has completed a sentence let alone a complete, coherent thought or idea.

I will be the first to admit to guilt of committing this crime of communication. I know that I have done this because I often have to engage in a mental dialogue when I am listening with intent. I am telling myself, “wait, what is this person saying and what does it mean to me?” before I allow myself to speak.

Do you listen with intent?

So what in the world does this have to do with writing? Active listening allows you to understand another’s emotional experience and motivations. These are the very thoughts and experiences that can add depth and texture to our stories.

Writing is not just about having a lot to say. It is about having something meaningful to communicate. Communication requires at least two participants engaged in a reciprocal exchange. In the case of spoken conversation, this requires active listening. In writing, this is understanding your audience, who they are and what they want, and then communicating with them through your written words. This, too, is reciprocal.

Active listening can also be helpful when you are not a participant in a conversation. Have you ever sat in a public place and just listened to the conversations around you? This is such a great exercise for writers. The content of what is being said may not be that important (although it’s often fascinating).

How people communicate, word choice, tone of voice, body language and the response of other participants in the conversation are so important. Active listening in these situations can inform how we build our characters and help us write more realistic and interesting dialogue.

Now, if you are so captivated by the content that you can’t possibly tear yourself from eavesdropping, you might find the seed for your next story. This does not mean copying conversations, verbatim, and calling it a story. This can mean “borrowing” from the gist of a conversation or more importantly incorporating the themes and sentiments of a conversation into your own stories.

There is no substitute for real life experiences. As writers, we often incorporate or tell of our own real life experiences in our stories. However, all around us, people are engaged in everyday conversations that are the seeds waiting to bear the fruits of great storytelling.

So stop. Take a deep breath. And listen.

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