Communication is a skill. But for the most part, it is not a skill we seek out education in.
Maybe you’ve had this experience: someone begins to talk to you and you listen for a moment, then begin to work on the grocery budget for next month, or you review some talking points for that presentation you need to give to your boss next week, or you pick up where you left off in your favorite daydream.
You don’t listen.
Your mind wanders.
Listening Is Hard
Human beings aren’t really built to listen.
Studies have shown we listen at a rate of up to 250 words per minute, but we think at a rate of 1,000 to 3,000 words a minute. So while someone is talking to us, our minds are racing ahead, eager to get to the next interesting thing. It’s like being perpetually stuck behind the slow person in traffic.
To make this even worse, people usually only speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute. That is half of the rate we are capable of listening at. Ugh, so slow!
So what happens? How do these facts manifest themselves in our daily life? What we see is that during most conversations we are only waiting for our turn to talk.
And technology isn’t making it any easier.
At any moment of the day, we can be doing a dozen things at once. We can be lying in bed, checking our email, texting a friend, eating chips, and so on. Technology means that we can spread ourselves out over a bunch of activities.
The world is speeding up. To make it worse, only 2 percent of people have any formal education in listening? Sure, there may be some natural listeners out there, but they are rare. That means that most people you talk to are probably not listening to you.
Not Listening Hurts You
All relationships are built on listening. If you aren’t a good listener, this can hold you back in every aspect of your life.
“I was down at my shore house this weekend…” your boss begins.
And you mind leaps into action! “That reminds me of my aunt’s shore house on Chincoteague island and the summer we spent fishing and chasing the wild ponies.”
So for the rest of your boss’s (admittedly very dry and poorly told) story, you’re writing and editing your own shore house story, which you plan to shoehorn in at the soonest convenient moment.
But the last half of his story tied directly into a project he wants you to head up. He wants you on this because he values your attention to detail and perceptiveness.
Your lack of listening skills just put you in an awkward situation.
“That reminds me of a time when I got my foot caught in a jet ski…” you say, springboarding off your friend’s story about jet skis, but out of the corner of your eye you could swear that he just rolled his eyes a bit. And even when you get to the exciting part about applying the tourniquet to your severed femoral artery, no one seems to be all that engaged.
It is then that you realize that he was sharing his last happy memory of his recently deceased uncle. Whoops!
No one wants to be friends with a bad listener.
You’re on a first date with that cute girl from the volleyball league. Still reeling from your courage at asking her out, you come to the horrifying realization halfway through dessert that you haven’t let her get a word in edgewise all night.
You ask her a question about herself, but it’s too late! She gives a half-hearted answer and quietly settles in to finish her tiramisu.
You blew it.
Let’s face it. Science is not on our side. Human nature seems to tend toward not listening. But, good news, listening is a skill you can learn.
The Cure: Improv
For all it’s silliness, at its heart, improv is just formalized listening education. When we stand in a circle and pass sounds to each other, it’s meant to reorient us to a place where we’re listening to each other. To succeed in the exercise, we must pay attention to who has the sound, and what sound they’re passing. Then, by repeating their sound as we catch it, we’re telling them that we heard them and communicating that we’ve listened to them.
Improv is listening. It isn’t about making jokes, or being funny or doing something weird. It is just about listening. And listening makes you a better boss, a better friend, and a better spouse.
Have you ever been hanging out with friends and a recurring joke develops over the course of the night? Why is this so satisfying? What makes it funnier each time it’s repeated? It’s because you’re being listened to. Someone made the initial joke, and then the group, by listening for opportunities to reintroduce the joke and doing so, demonstrates that not only was the joke listened to the first time, its context was recognized and repeated in all the subsequent times.
We humans like to be listened to.
We like being listened to, but we find it hard to listen. Improv provides a situation where listening is required to succeed. The second you stop listening, you fail. Things fall apart.
This is why improv is so effective as a teaching tool for listening.
Imagine your scene partner strides onstage, chest puffed proudly out. “Make way for the king!” he crows.
And immediately you start trying to remember what the word is for that…stick…thing…that he carries around is. A scepter! That’s right. That’s what it’s called. Great.
But wait. While you were thinking all that, more information has come pouring in. We’ve found out that the king has a lisp and studiously avoids any “s” words. We’ve also found out that he hates the queen. All of this information is vital to you working together with him in this scene, but you can’t because you were trying to be clever.
Listening beats clever every time.
Learning to listen is mostly about learning to slow down. It is about recognizing when our attention is being drawn elsewhere and resisting. (After typing that sentence, I just checked my Facebook, email, and bank account. I guess there’s still some work I need to do.)
So in improv, or just in life, listen.