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 say and offer to the scene, I have failed to listen. For example, they may say 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, and 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 they saying as they snort, growl, stammer, hesitate, squeal, repeat words, and hobble? Our role as scene partners is to listen with such attention, intention, and active investment, that we notice and consider everything happening between and among us. Improv teaches us to sharpen the skill of being consistently tuned in, so much that we remember every name, storyline, accent, walk, and motivation: all the details of our entire show set together.
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; 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, encourage a stronger self to emerge.”
What if this is true? 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 one of the most powerful tools we have is listening? What if we can communicate that someone is valued, important, and loved by simply listening to and considering what they say?
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 it the silence have space to breath, let their words ring and echo in the air, their pauses tell a story, 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 or offering a follow up question.
Now, watch them.
If you have heard them well, watch them melt on the floor of themselves 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, their 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 this. Then, please come find me. I want to hear how it goes.
Evey McKellar is a Level 3 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.