As a writer I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to improve any of my skills, be they technical, linguistic, goal-oriented (such as the skills it takes to publish a book), or basic. Listening falls into the latter category; it’s something all of us do, yet all of us can improve on. I don’t think I need to mention the fact that we are a generation on information overload; media screams at us to get our attention, whether through the use of power-punching, gut-wrenching headlines, or power-words written in ALL CAPS! with the appropriate punctuation, or flashing ads that give us no peace until we either turn them off or leave the website they’ve invaded. Adds flash at us constantly whether on TV, in shops, on the internet, or driving down the motorway. Eventually we become numb and stop listening. We put in our ear-buds, turn on a song of our choice and try to tune out the rest of the world, at least for a moment.
By improving listening, I am not implying that we toss out our MP3 players and force ourselves to listen to everything in case we miss something important. We must all use discretion about where our “focus energy” goes. But by improving our listening, we can begin to hear the quieter, more subtle elements; we can focus our ears and minds to perceive things that might be more worthwhile than the noise that vies for our attention. Conscious listening creates understanding.
I recently listened to a TED talk by Julian Treasure on five exercises to improve listening; I share them with you here; click on the image above if you’d like to watch the talk yourself:
1) Silence: For at least three minutes a day, try to find a place of complete silence (if not possible, at least aim for very quiet). It helps to recalibrate your ears, so that you can actually hear the quieter things once again.
2) Mixer: In a noisy environment, whether a café or sitting by a stream, practice focusing your ears on one sound, then another; It will improve the quality of your listening. I use this technique with singing students; before they begin rehearsing with a song we will analyse and dissect it instrument by instrument, verse by verse, vocal by vocal. The more they become aware of this process, the better they will understand how their vocals fit into the bigger picture as both a wind- and stringed instrument.
3) Savouring: There’s a “hidden choir” all around you; focusing on such mundane sounds as the dish washer or the coffee machine can reveal rhythms and build an appreciation of the simpler things in life. Sound technicians for films use this as their greatest tool; because they’ve trained themselves in this area, they know they can combine the squishing of an orange, the grating of a cinder block across a corrugated iron sheet and the distortion of their vacuum cleaner’s sound to come up with a monster ala the Balrog of Lord of the Rings, or scraping keys along a piano wire to land Dr. Who’s TARDIS.
4) Listening Positions: This is the idea that you can shift your position (“level” of listening) according to what you’re listening to: active/passive, reductive/expansive, critical/empathetic. These adjust certain filters that we all have, such as culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations and intentions, which increasingly focus our listening from all “sounds” down to things we specifically listen to.
5) RASA: An acronym for Receive (i.e. paying attention to the person), Appreciate (giving verbal feedback such as small sounds of agreement or interest), Summarize (feedback of what you’ve understood), and Ask (ask questions afterward). Practicing RASA will improve not only how we listen, but our retention of information.
Listening is one of our five senses, and one that’s worth exploring in writing; when a reader can become absorbed in the sensations of a scene – hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling and tasting the environment through well-chosen words – they will be invested in the story, and care about what happens next.