Four Steps to Effective Listening

"Don't do this - Do this instead"

My writers group could use a class in listening. Last night we were in a restaurant reading a scene from a fellow screenwriter's script. When we were finished, the writer said, "I'll take any suggestions on the ending."

Everyone spoke up at once. It was chaos—everyone talking over the top of each other to be heard. "The president should fight the alien." "What if the alien was a female?" "I need more information about the DNA." "When did the President learn to fight?"

The writer butted in. "One at a time?"

We all went first. "On second thought, what if the President is in league with the alien." "I really think there is some alien love going on." "I'm not sure DNA works like that." "Do all Presidents know Kung Fu?"

Listening Actively

Since we are a screenwriting group, I'm going to suggest we watch the comedic training DVD Listening Actively. We would learn that there is more to listening than waiting for your turn to talk. (Not that we could even do that.) The program talks about four key listening skills, all of which we desperately need.

1. Don't: Talk over the top of someone; Instead: Listen and show interest

We were talking so fast and furiously over each other, I don't know that we were aware that others were even talking. We definitely weren't listening to each other.

2. Don't: Tune out; Instead:  Acknowledge key points

If we had listened to each writer as they spoke, we might have been able to build on their thoughts. As it was, we accomplished nothing but confusion.

3. Don't: Force a person to listen; Instead: Agree to listen to each other

There was no listening to each other. We forced everyone, including everyone in the restaurant, to hear what we had to say. The poor screenwriter who had originally asked for opinions was forced to listen to even the most stupid suggestions, because if she didn't we'd just yell them out louder.

4. Don't: Ignore body language; Instead: Read reactions to your words

We should have noticed the screenwriter waiving her hands for us to stop, but we chose to believe she was motioning to us, "Bring it on. More! More!"

Actively listening to people is vital. It's the cornerstone of communication and a skill that must be developed.

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force" writes Brenda Ueland in her essay On the Fine Art of Listening.

As writers, we of all people should have known that.

Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor—with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.