Photo credit: Stephanie Evelyn McKellar

Photo credit: Stephanie Evelyn McKellar

By: Stephanie Evelyn McKellar

Listening is a key component to effective communication in improv, to the work of collaboratively making scenes up on the spot. If I interrupt and speak over my scene partner, if I ignore what they have added to the scene, I have failed to listen. For example, they may make the suggestion that we are co-pirates searching for our shared parrot; I fail to listen and name us as sibling knee surgeons. The audience (always) notices the flub, we look foolish. We have missed an opportunity.

When creating scenes and comedy, improv teaches us to practice listening to everything. Listen to what I am doing (with my body, voice, and behavior); consider what that says about my character. Listen to what my scene partners offer verbally and non-verbally; consider the implications as well as the articulation. What are they saying as they stammer, hesitate, repeat words, and hobble? Our role as scene partners is to listen with such intention and focused attention that we notice and consider everything happening between and among us. Improv teaches us to sharpen the skill of being consistently tuned in.

Listen, pause, consider, respond.
Listen, pause, consider, respond.

This practice makes beautiful comedy; it makes even more beautiful relationships out in the arena of life, as listening is the ultimate sign of respect. Listening to someone fully, with a pure focus and no agenda beyond hearing and understanding them (to their confirmation, not ours), is a revolutionary act. Mary Rose O’Reilly says “one can, I think, listen someone into existence, [and] encourage a stronger self to emerge.”

What if this is true, what if one of the most powerful tools we have is listening? What if, by listening, we can nurture one another into stronger, more alive selves? What if, as a community, we can serve each other in this way? What if we can communicate that someone is valued, important, and loved by simply listening to and considering what they say?

The OnBeing Project is endeavoring to equip the world to have Civil Conversations across the issues that divide us. Their work is grounded on six virtues, one of which being Generous Listening. To listen with generosity implies an active interest seeking understanding in the “humanity behind the world of the other.” I witness Jesus often listening for the humanity behind the world in the other by: uplifting the attentive Samaritan, forgiving the exposed adulterous woman, equipping the woman at the well to preach or the man lying near the pool to heal, befriending the shamed tax collector.

The next time you have an opportunity to listen, give this a try:

Make eye contact when listening, and let someone speak to completion. Wait after they finish, wait for a few seconds. Take in what they have said, consider what they have not said. Let the silence have space to breathe, let their words ring and echo in the air, let their pauses tell a story, let their tone and body language have a voice. (Breathe through whatever reactions, defenses, arguments, or other ideas you have, at least for this moment. There will be time for those later.)

Then with careful thought and consideration (of what they have said and what you know of them), respond from a place of curiosity and interest, reflecting back what you heard, or offer a follow-up question.

Now, watch them.

If you have heard them well, watch them melt and release their defenses.

Watch them soften and glow, embraced by the gift of being fully seen by someone else.

It is indeed a gift. A person lights up when fully heard, for they have just had their words and ideas reflected back to them, they have just experienced someone understanding and witnessing their story and perspective — it is revolutionary when we truly, completely, and humbly hear one another.

Imagine if we listened as intently to our partners, parents, children, peers, coworkers, superiors, clients, employees. Imagine tapping someone on the shoulder, them turning to fully face you with fixed eye contact, and telling you, “yes, you have my full attention.”

Try offering this full attentiveness to someone.

Then, please come find me. I want to hear how it goes.