Listening is just as important as talking in a conversation. I believe listening is much more difficult than many of us think. In this post, I want to explore the challenges of listening. My goal is to better understand how people listen, so I can incorporate that into my own writing.
I’ve worked on several projects where the bulk of the story is a conversation. The best example is my short story “The Crying Woman”. In that story, a woman talks with a man about her problems. While the focus is, of course, on the woman, the role the man plays is also important. We need to understand why he listens.
When others come to ask us for help, we want to help them and listening is where that starts. Every one knows how to listen, but not everyone is a good listener. Few of us give much thought to how we listen, but we can become better listeners.
Barriers to Listening
Many things can make listening difficult.
Our ability to hear clearly.
Other noises and problems with our hearing can severely limit our ability to understand what people say to us. If the place where you talk is noisy, it is easy to miss the nuances of what the other person says. If the location is noisy, a move to somewhere quiet will help.
Many people, myself included, have some hearing loss. I don’t believe that is as important as most may think, but as a listener, you need to be aware of your limitations and act to minimise the handicap.
Our own inattention.
If we have other thoughts in our mind or don’t care about the other person and their problems, we can’t really listen to them. We all have our own problems and interests. These can divert our attention away from what other say to us. It will take significant mental effort to put away your own thoughts. It is much harder if you don’t care about the other person.
What the other person has to say may strike a chord within us. It could be that we have strong feelings about what they have to say. These emotions can blind us to what they say. We may be tempted to “egg them on” when we need to calm them down. We may need to distance ourselves from the problem. In a way, we need to “not care”.
The problem solver reaction.
Often the mistake a listener makes is to tell the talker how to solve their problem. I know I’ve had this problem. This can fail for a couple of reasons. First, the talker may want emotional support rather a “solution” to their problem. Most people already know the solution to their problem when they ask for advice. If you start to tell them what to do, you do not give them what they want.
Second, when you give a solution too quickly, you tend to trivialize their problem. In both cases you shut down communication. It is not unusual for people avoid asking directly about their problem. They may want to get advice without admitting they have a problem. They may not be clear in their own minds what their problem is.
We can disapprove of what a person says. If they have a problem that they created themselves, we will tend to blame them. While it may be a true assessment of their culpability, it can quickly close off communication. You must avoid any judgement of what they say. This is not the same as agreeing to what they say. You can express your disagreement later.
How do these barriers play out in a story?
The tendency I’ve had is to write conversations where both people are articulate and perfectly understand what the other says. In my experience, this is not the case. When I listen to someone, I usually find that I wonder how to respond. Have I understood what they’ve said? Do I understand what they want? What can I say that will help them?
Conflict is the basis of any story. The barriers to listening can form the basis of internal and interpersonal conflict. In a story, communication between people is essential and the struggle to understand each other is an important source of conflict.
In a conversation, the talker struggles to express what they need to say. The same is true of the listener. When you tell the story, you need to show the listener’s struggle to understand. The listener may have to conquer some or all of the barriers to listening. This will make for a more dramatic conversation.
In subsequent posts on this topic, I will explore some techniques people use to improve heir listening.