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by Darren Held

Sometimes I have trouble coming up with ideas for blog topics, and today was one of those days. So I texted Lisa, and she said, “Have you written about the art of listening lately?” To which I replied, “What’d you say?”

Learning to listen in improv is difficult for many people, which should come as no surprise since the “art of listening” in the real world is rapidly becoming a lost art.

Here are some examples of what listening is not:

  • Waiting semi-patiently for the other person to stop speaking so you can say what you’re itching to say.
  • Hearing – maybe even paying attention to – what the other person is saying, but not retaining it.
  • Watching the other person’s lips move while you mentally rearrange the furniture in the room, edit your grocery list or think of creative ways to maim your boss.

Most people are guilty of some of these things, in varying degrees, from time to time.

In improv, it becomes instantly clear when you haven’t been listening. You don’t know what to agree with if you haven’t been listening. The information you add does not connect to what came previously if you haven’t been listening. All the commitment in the world won’t help you if your huge emotional reaction makes no sense because you haven’t been listening.

So how do you get better at listening? Like this:

  1. Be totally in the moment. Forget your agenda (ie, what you’re dying to say) and put all of your focus on what the other person is saying.
  2. Process the person’s information so that you are taking it in, rather than just hearing it. Mentally translate their information into “What that means is…” statements so you understand their meaning.
  3. See #1.

You can feel it when you are shoe-horning something into an improv scene to satisfy your agenda. It feels awkward and clunky, and the scene doesn’t work. After a few (hundred) times, having a successful scene becomes more important to you than sticking with an agenda, and you start to really listen.

If you challenge yourself to respond to the very last thing your partner said, you will have no choice but to hang on their every word, listening for the meaning and then coming up with a response in the moment.

And, um, I’m pretty sure that applies in real world scenarios as well as improv. Just sayin’.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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