“The Long Lost Forgotten and Barely Remembered Ancient Art of Listening” by Meili Chao

Here's a photo of my adorable dad not even pretending to listen.

Here's a photo of my adorable dad not even pretending to listen.

Why do we tell stories? To relate to one another. To feel less alone. To educate. To inspire a scene. To avoid the discomfort of silence. To implore the comfort of mascara- stained girls in bathrooms adorned with too personal of insults. How did they know I’d be here? To remind ourselves of the good ol’ days. To forget the bad new ones. To rid us of the darkness within ourselves, or to shed our eco-efficient light on someone else. To escape the dreaded hand. To make that monay hunay. To guiltlessly gossip. Kylie Jenner 2020. Or, to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s time to listen. Say what?!

My father has given me three pieces of advice in my life, and consequently left me fumbling through unabridged darkness in all other moments. (JK dad. Luv u, meen it.) One of those times, was when I left for college and he curtly informed me that, “if you ever want to get to know a person, don’t talk. Just listen. They’ll tell you everything you need to know.” This lost pillar of ancient Chinese wisdom, called listening, has washed over the sands of my life in ways I never anticipated, in both forms bad and not so bad. It often manifests itself in making me appear shy in social settings, because what happens when you listen like a creepster with your hand to your ear and eyes wide to the floor, rather than talk, respond or act in any way that a normal human person would? In comedic settings, it makes me more hesitant in Improv scenes because I assume value of my scene partner’s ideas over mine. (Additional skills: extreme humility) But in more appropriate times, it guides and informs me in defining what kind of characters my friends, enemies, coworkers, classmates, strangers are. And to gain a quicker grasp on those people who are consequently that moment in my life’s, scene partner. Listening is an invaluable skill. Let’s Ted Talk here and imagine if you had gone your entire life without listening. You would have acquired no knowledge, obtained no experience, no musical or artistic delight, received no iPhone updates, no learned calculus that you’ll never have the chance to not use, no discouraging update on the financial gains of unskilled famous twenty year olds. What would you do without the humbling insults from your high school’s soccer team, or most importantly never been informed that the battle between man buns and rompers was all a government ploy to distract us from the real war going on. Skinny Jeans. (People don’t forget!)

This isn’t a message to never speak up, stand out, or communicate your own ideas. But more so, to respect and honor that others may have the same inclination. So next time you get that warm, bubbling sensation to speak over, “eh-hum” or flip off...just remember that listening has taught you everything you know. Just like it’s taught me everything I know. I’m just too busy listening to tell you about it.

Meili Chao is an improviser, stand-up comedian, and musician who lives in Denton with her cat, Miles Voldemort. She spends her spare time wearing off-the-shoulder tops in coffee shops "waiting to be discovered."

Not So Awkward Silence

silence You’re in the middle of a conversation with a person or a group of people. For the purposes of really exploring the term “awkward,” and setting the scene, let’s say the conversation you’re in the middle of is with one person. Maybe it’s a person that you really look up to, personally or professionally, or, maybe it’s someone you’ve just realized you have a crush on.

You’re actually talking, you know, being a normal human being. Things are going well but the conversation is starting to slow down, you’ve said everything that was on the script you had written in your head, and they’ve responded positively and appropriately, but now, suddenly, silence. You’re both standing, still facing one another, looking in various directions, maybe nodding your head, saying things like, “Anyway…” You’re probably smiling to keep the panic in your eyes from showing, trying desperately to figure out how to get out of the conversation. There you are, just wallowing around in what is now very awkward silence.

My advice for getting yourself out of this mess? Just a clean break. Say something like, “Welp. See ya later!” Perhaps then that will leave them curious to know more about you based on your outstanding social skills and the fact that you have seen Dumb & Dumber one too many times.

Dumb and Dumber

Or not. You probably shouldn’t take advice from me or let me send your new match on Bumble a message. I’ll ruin it.

Regardless of that silly scenario, there are many moments in life when silence is very uncomfortable. Those moments often teach you to fear it, no matter the situation. If you aren’t talking, then something’s wrong. Right? Not necessarily.

I’ve always been terrified of silence. The thought of awkward silence in person is one thing but awkward silence on the phone? Yuck. Don’t even get me started. There are reasons I’m a pro at texting. Obviously, the more you get to know a person or people, the more comfortable you all are with just enjoying a little peace and quiet, but even still, I’ve always felt that if you were talking, the better things were going.

As it has with many things, though, improv has taught me otherwise. I feel like maybe it’s natural to step out into a scene needing to say something immediately, especially if you’re in front of an audience. You feel like you need to say something, anything, so that you don’t appear lost. You feel like you need to speak so that you and your scene partner(s) aren’t just standing there in silence. Sure, it may feel just as uncomfortable as it does in real life but remember, improv is pretend, it’s make believe, and we’re all just making it up as we go.

Embracing this not-so-awkward silence will allow you to better listen to what’s happening in a scene, catch all of those very important details, names, and gifts that your scene partner is giving you and play at the very top of your intelligence.

And, as far as the audience goes, just think about it: If you step out, take a breath, take your time initiating or responding, not only is what comes out of your mouth most likely going to be better and bolder, but the audience will not feel an ounce of your awkwardness. If anything, they’ll be intrigued and that much more engaged in your scene when you do finally speak up.

If you apply some of these lessons to your everyday life, especially things like, really listening, taking time to respond, and simply not rushing a conversation along, you’ll become a better improviser and conceivably, a better friend and communicator.

So, settle in and get more comfortable with silence, in your scenes and your life. No one’s thinking about it as hard as you are anyway.

Megan Radke is currently a Level 4 student at DCH. She is a copywriter and social media manager by day and an essayist and mediocre musician by night. She is a constant consumer of books, music, film, and all things comedy. She is also great at racking up copious amounts of credit card debt with spur-of-the-moment travel.

Listening, Improv, and a Homeless Man That Might Be God

Listen up comedy homies; it’s time to talk a little bit about listening. In case you were wondering what those two sound holes placed symmetrically on either side of your head were, those are called ears, and we humans use ears to listen to the wonderful world around us. Certain other, more disgusting, humans may also use those same holes for sticking freshly, spit-covered fingers inside of as a prank, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about listening. Some humans are far better at listening than others. Case in point: the waiter I had at the Corner Bakery last week. Not such a good listener. Because when I said “No pickles, please,” he heard, “Boy, I KNOW you have pickles back in that kitchen. PLEASE, help a girl out and just give her all the dills and gherkins you got!”  

See, listening is an acquired skill that takes actual practice to perfect. And just as with any other learned skill, like juggling or noodle-making or Ukranian egg art (look that shit up, it’s crazy), if you don’t take the time to actively and effectively engage your brain to do them, those skills become progressively harder to perform over time. As the popular saying goes: You use it or you lose it, baby.

Active listening. Real listening. The type of listening where you’re mentally present in a conversation, using analytical skills to process what’s being said to you, not interrupting, not being distracted by someone texting you boss cat memes, and when the time is right, finally delivering an emotionally and contextually accurate response, that, comedy friends, takes practice. Lucky for us improvisers, though, the art of improv comedy helps us hone our ear-hole talents to their fullest.

listeningAlong with the “yes and...” tenet, improv is also built on a solid foundation of active listening. Ideally, the goal during any given scene should be to concentrate on and really listen to your scene partner’s message, not just wait for them to stop talking so you can say whatever it is you’ve had planned in your head since you stepped on stage. That’s the model scenario at least. But, I’m not gonna lie, I am an improv youngin’still, so from time to time I toss improv idealism to the wind and vomit out whatever’s been floating in my brain space without focusing on the information that has just been relayed to me.

With that said, however, I have noticed, as my improv journey has progressed, a slight improvement in my listening abilities both in and outside of class. I’m no Matt Murdock or Bionic Woman or anything, but I am noticing that my hearing is stronger, I’m retaining more verbal information, and I’m able to have deeper conversations and make deeper connections with people.

In addition, I think other people may also be starting to notice my improved listening skillz, which brings me to a quick story about a homeless man I met on the DART one afternoon, who may or may not be God. After reading the title, you’ve probably been wondering when the homeless man was gonna show up. Well, the time is now, people! We have arrived!

After Ewing practice a couple Saturday’s ago, I boarded the DART, as usual, to make way back home...or in this case, back to my car parked somewhere in the depths of downtown Carrolton. Normal train etiquette dictates that when a train car is totally empty, and there are dozens of open seats available, a stranger should not take the seat directly beside somebody already sitting (that somebody is me btw). But this particular homeless guy didn’t conform to normal train etiquette. No, he played by his own rules, and he plopped down in the seat next to me.

Upon taking a seat, the man turned to me and said, “I’m homeless, I’m gay, and I am just havin’ a blessed day.” That order. I smiled politely and thought to myself, “Did I just have my own New In Town experience?!” The homeless man proceeded to tell me that he had been looking for someone to talk to all morning, and he could tell, based on of my “beautiful aura”(I have no clue what that actually means, but I’m hoping it's street code for improv skillz that are noticeable in real life),  that I’d be willing to hear him out.

And so, for the next 45 minutes, I did the unthinkable. I sat, closed my mouth, and I listened. I listened intently to the man’s story, soaking in all the details. And, partially, I also listened for Joan Osborne to pop out from the shadows with a guitar in hand because the guy was giving off some major Joan of Arcadia set-up vibes. But, for 45 minutes he described to me how his situation came to be, how he had slipped through society’s cracks, how people at the shelters were often judgmental toward his sexuality, and the many other struggles of life on the streets. It was interesting and heartbreaking and all I could do was smile, nod, and absorb his words like a little non-homeless-train-riding sponge human.   

listeningI thought at some point he’d ask me for money or help or something, but he never did. He simply just wanted to talk and have somebody listen. Not half listen, but actively listen. When the train pulled up to the homeless man’s stop, he thanked me for allowing him to share his story with me. He also said that once he gets his life on track he’d come find me and make me a “super star.” I laughed and said OK.

Then, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a bottle of sparkly, silver nail polish and handed it to me as a token of his gratitude (why he had nail polish in his pocket, the world may never know). I turned the bottle over and read the label on the bottom: “Super Star Status.”

He left and I sat bewildered, thinking, “I’m pretty sure I just talked to God, and now I really have to share this with my Ewing teammates!” My listening abilities, like the Grinch’s heart, may have grown three sizes that day, I’m not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that developing the habits of a good listener is something that we improvisers could and should continue to work on. Listening to one another is our way of showing commitment to and fostering trust of our scene partners...or homeless men we meet on trains.


Lauren Levine is currently a Level 4 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.

Listen, Listen, Listen

"My Listening Ears" by Niclas LindhListening may be one of the hardest skills to master in improv, because it requires us to pay attention to others, taking the attention off ourselves. We have to put our egos aside and let someone else take the spotlight. If you don't listen, you risk debilitating a scene. And trust me, the audience will notice when you don't listen. They'll notice that you're forcing the spotlight on yourself, that the scene is no longer a group show. But if you listen and respond to what was immediately said, a tandem is created. That is something more interesting to see. Audiences love to watch parts working together toward a whole. And your fellow performers will love you too, because you're acknowledging the creativity and genius within them by responding to what they say. This acknowledgement is one of the best ways to build energy in a show.

Brenda Ueland has a great insight about listening in her book If You Want to Write.

For when you come to to think of it, the only way to love a person is not, as the stereotyped Christian notion is, to coddle them and bring them soup when they are sick, but by listening to them and seeing and believing in the god, the poet, in them. For by doing this, you keep the god and the poet alive and make it flourish. 

This week, work on really listening to others. You'll find that the more you listen, the more you'll be listened to.

And if you have some great listening exercises or examples you'd like to share, please do so in the comments.

(Photo via Flickr: Niclas Lindh / Creative Commons)