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3 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills

Great improvisers are great listeners. Great actors are great listeners. Listening is the foundation of the performing arts.

We cannot be in moment if we are not listening. It is impossible.

We cannot react to our fellow actor if we are not listening. It won’t happen.

Why?

Because if we aren’t listening, we aren’t open to what we are getting from our scene partner, and that means we have cut ourselves off from any sort of spontaneity.

Listening is a skill. It can be learned. It takes discipline and courage.

Our ego wants us to talk and fill in the silences with blah blah blah blah blah. It will have us talk over other people and dominate with our words.

But to be good actors and improvisers, we need to learn to shut the fuck up if we are to be affected on stage.

I have never done a show and afterwards said, “I think I listened as much as possible.” No, I always find places in my performances where I could have slowed down and taken in my scene partners and the audience more.

When I look back at the good shows, I realize they were good because I was listening my ass off. I was not ahead of myself, but instead I was reacting to the last thing my partner was saying to me.

This is a skill I constantly need to work on. Here are three things you can do in your everyday life that can develop your listening skills to make you a better performer.

  1. Meditation
    Meditation is one of the best tools I’ve found that can improve my listening skills. When I meditate, I realize how many crazy thoughts and conspiracy theories I have swirling around in my head on a daily basis. When I do it first thing in the morning, I find it quiets my mind and gives me a little more space during the day to really hear what people are saying to me. I have found that it can turn off those awful negative tapes in my head that say “I’m not good enough” and “I suck.” When I meditate before I improvise, I find that it helps me keep my focus in a scene and stops distracting thoughts from coming into my performance.
  1. Editing the script in your head
    I like to do this when I am in a low-stakes conversation. Let’s say you are having a casual conversation with someone and in the first five seconds of the conversation you know exactly what you are going to say. All you need to do is wait for them to stop talking so you can recite what you’ve already written in your head. Instead of giving that response, I throw it out and try to respond to the last thing they just said. I have found that 80% of the time, a new thought will come out. What I love about this exercise is it gets you to be more in the moment with your responses.
  1. Observe people’s body language
    Listening is not just words. It is also about paying attention to people’s non-verbal emotional and physical cues. As you go around the day, look at the people you see: the woman at Starbucks, the check-out guy in the supermarket, the people at your day job. As you observe them, try to figure out how they are feeling in the moment. Are they angry, happy, sad, afraid? For example, at your day job, do people look excited because they are bringing in pizza for lunch or scared because they won’t hit their deadlines? You’ll be amazed at how much you can pick up from people just by paying close attention to their body language and facial expressions, without sharing a single word.

If you have any other good listening exercises, please feel free to share them in the comments section since I am always looking for new ways to improve these skills.

How to use improv in your relationships

My friend, Christie, suggested I write a blog about using improv in your relationships. Though I am an expert in improv and not in relationships, I thought, hey, why not? Here’s what I have learned in more than 25 years of teaching and performing improvisation.

1. Bring a sense of play in all your relationships.
Play is the thing that connects you to other people. It’s the thing that people want to be around, since it the thing that is lacking in most of our lives. I have friend who I call on the phone we go into character as two old WASPy guys named James and Rutherford. Over the years we have discovered details about the characters. We can stay on the phone for hours, cracking each other up. Why? Because we are playing. A sense of play is an attractive quality that people want and want to be around.

2. Listen.
Listening is the greatest skill you can have in improv, and it’s an even better skill to use in your life. You not only want to listen to what someone is telling you, you want to acknowledge what the other person has said and incorporate it. Really listening in improvisation is no different than really listening in life. It is  building off the last thing that the person says. This creates spontaneity, and more importantly it makes the other person feel listened to and valued. It also builds rapport and trust, qualities that can help in any kind of relationship.

3. Make fun of yourself.
I have been fortunate enough to have worked with, interviewed and taught some of the best improvisers in the country, and I have found them on the whole to be very humble, self-deprecating people. Good improvisers have the ability to make fun of themselves, and when you can do that, people will find you endearing, real and lovable — not a bad quality if your are looking to continue to build relationships.

4. Say Yes And To Fun.
Fun is hard to say yes to. It’s friends calling at the last minute on Friday afternoon to see if you want to go to the beach, or going to a concert or taking dancing lessons or going out to sing karaoke. For some of us, just going out to dinner or a cup of coffee is terrifying. When you say yes, a lot of emotions will come up, especially fear. Just realize that is sign you are heading in the right direction. Del Close used to say “follow the fear” when you are improvising. When you scared before a scene, that’s usually when you do your best work. Use fear as your compass that you are right on course.

5. Don’t worry about the results.
In improv, you are not in the results business. When you are truly improvising, you never know where you going to end up, and life is no different. Actually, in improv if you are doing a scene and you think you know where you are going, you not improvising at all — you are trying to controlling the outcome and you’ll end up with crumbs when you could have had the whole cake. Any time you collaborate with someone, you will create something beyond what you could have imagined by yourself. I can not tell you how many great opportunities have happened in my life because I showed for one thing, didn’t worry about the results, and ended up getting something even bigger.