Writing about Listening

I watched Magic Mike a few weeks ago, and found the film rather depressing. In part, because for most of the movie, none of the characters actually listen to what anyone else is saying. This is common, because listening is a hard skill. Most of us spend our time thinking about what we’re going to say next.

I discuss listening skills in some of the classes I teach. Talking to people about listening seems a bit of an oxymoron, but how else can we learn how to do it well? One trick that I use to help me focus on what other people are telling me is a tool that is also useful in writing, particularly in writing dialogue.

A storyteller simplifies the facts of what happened to create a narrative. Real life is much more complex than storytelling, but storytellers distill the stream of events into those things that drive home the point that they want to make. In order to focus on what people say to me, I ask myself as I’m listening: Why are they telling this story using these particular details? What is the conclusion that they want me to come to? And as I’ve used this tool, I’ve discovered something fascinating. Sometimes, I can learn about conclusions that the storyteller hadn’t completely comprehended themselves.

For example, I was listening to a friend tell me about a former boss. He described how this boss had offered a great salary to lure him away from his previous job, only to eventually fire him for minor offenses. My friend went on to describe how this boss liked spending large amounts of money on toys (such as an outdoor projection system) that he used once or twice and then forgot. By the third such story, I realized that there was a commonality there. My friend said, “He buys toys, but then throws them away.”

“Like he did with you,” I said.

My friend paused, and told me that he’d never realized the connection. By listening to what details my friend was sharing, I was able to identify the “moral” of his stories–a conclusion he’d never consciously reached himself.

Listening helps us learn about the process of storytelling. All of us are storytellers. But we can also approach our stories as listeners. Each detail that we include should be there to help lead our audience to particular conclusions. If anything is extraneous to our point, it can safely be removed. Because we need to leave space for how our listeners are going to respond to what we tell them–even if it’s only in their heads.

Martha Turner Fein is a trainer with a degree in communication. She grew up in Washington, DC, and she loves books. And coffee.