One of the best tools a writer can learn is the art of listening. Actually, learning to listen is a useful tool for any human, period. I spent the weekend in a workshop with people who had varying degrees of skills in listening, which has had me pondering the subject.
As my good and wise friend (and leader of the workshop) Mary-Suzanne pointed out, most of us spend time waiting to talk instead of actually listening. I’ve watched other people do this and I know that I myself do it all the time–and I pride myself in being a good listener.
Instead of actually listening and taking in what the other person is saying, our minds race. We start formulating what we want to say in return, or cataloging all the similar experiences that we have had so that we can talk about them when the other person shuts up. Or maybe we worry that we don’t have anything to say, or that we’ll be expected to have something to say and nothing will come out. We worry about what we look like or maybe we’re even worrying about something we did before the current conversation.
If we’re not worrying about ourselves, we may well be judging the person we are supposedly listening to. We judge the speed of their delivery, or think dire thoughts about the awful outfit they have on. We judge the funny expressions they make as they talk. Or the way they are shredding their napkin as they speak.
But all of this is worrying and judging, not listening.
Why does listening matter to a writer?
Because writers need to observe the world and everything and everyone in it in order to gather material. Writers need to listen to conversations of others to obtain an ear for dialogue and how people interact with each other. We need to listen to others in order to understand what it is to be human. Because, after all, that is what writing is all about–describing the human condition.
So start schooling yourself in the art of listening. How to do this is a bit harder to describe than telling people they should do this, I will admit. A quick search of the internet netted mostly descriptions for college students listening to instructors lecture. But this site seems to have some good advice about interpersonal listening.
The gist of it, of course, is staying present and not letting all your mental chatter distract you, whether that mental chatter is worrying about yourself or judging the speaker. You might just be surprised what happens when you start listening deeply to the world around you.