Learning to Listen

A few nights ago, my husband began to tell me his take on a recent political issue. I had already done some research on the subject, so I offered my opinion–which would be pretty standard, except that I forgot to wait until my husband had finished talking.

“Would you stop interrupting me?” he said, with a slight edge in his voice. “Whenever I talk lately, I get the feeling you’re just waiting for a chance to jump in.”

I knew exactly what he’d meant, as this was a trait we were often quick to point out in others. I’ve always considered myself an excellent listener, but never before had I recognized such behavior in myself.

As writers, we are generally eager to tell our stories. Sometimes this eagerness gets the best of us, and we spend conversations impatiently waiting for the other person’s lips to stop moving.

“You think you had a tough day at work?” we say. “Wait’ll you hear what happened to me!” And we go on to make the other person’s life a little more complete by sharing our own, much-better story.

But stories cannot exist in a vacuum. As writers, we must take our inspiration from real-world experiences and emotions. We have no choice in this matter; if we don’t know at least a little about the world around us, how can we write about it with any genuine sense of authority?

You know what I mean. If you’ve ever read anything in which the characters behave in inconsistent, puzzling ways that don’t feel real, you’re probably dealing with a writer who doesn’t know how to listen. Sure, this writer might know how to string words smoothly together, or design an intricate plot. But to tell a story about real people, and not just entertaining caricatures–for that, you need to learn how to listen.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time alone, creating stories out of my head. They were funny and entertaining, and my characters could toss around witty dialogue with the best of them. But I knew very little about human relationships then, so it should be no surprise that my characters suffered from the same flaw.

In those days, I believed the only way to make people like me was to tell them funny, interesting stories–but whenever I was around other people, I usually couldn’t think of anything to say. That all changed, almost overnight, when I learned to respond to people by asking questions. Instead of worrying about what to say to other people, I focused on learning more about them. This turned me into a more empathetic person and–as a direct result–a better writer.

The next time you talk with a friend, family member, or that guy ahead of you in line at the post office, resist that urge to jump in with your own thoughts and feelings. Don’t just wait until the other person is finished speaking; if you’d really like a challenge, try letting the entire conversation go by without saying anything other than the equivalent of “Please, tell me more.” You may be surprised by what you can learn. And as an added bonus, your loved ones (or that guy at the post office) will feel more listened to and appreciated.

If you find this difficult at first, just remember: There will be a time to tell your stories.

But there can be no stories for us–ever–if we don’t learn how to listen first.


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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