Four Tips to Improve Your Listening Skills

Photo/KarenJordan

I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen. ~Ernest Hemingway

“Are you listening to me?”

Has anyone ever asked you that question? Or maybe that thought pierced your heart and mind, as you felt the sting of someone else ignoring or rejecting you?

How important is listening to you as a writer? How do you know what your audience wants or needs if you don’t listen carefully to them?

Consider these four ways to improve your listening skills.

  1. Resolve to be quick to listen. Many times, people who come to us for help, just need us to listen. James 1:19 offers this advice, “Understand this … You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (NLT).
  2. Decide to be available. Jesus gives us an example of a wise counselor who made Himself available to listen. “The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30).
  3. Desire a discerning heart. Not only does Jesus listen, He discerned the needs of others. When His disciples came to Him after their ministry tour, Jesus observes their need for solitude and rest: “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).
  4. Choose to be quiet. Proverbs 17:28 reminds us, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (NIV).

At times our failure to listen before responding can provoke a negative, emotional response from our loved ones or friends, who may need our help. In fact, Proverbs 18:13 warns us, “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude” (MSG)

What can we offer others with our response, after we listen to their needs?

  • Grace, not criticism or judgment. Romans 2:4 reminds us, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT)
  • Companionship. We must encourage others to be dependent upon Jesus, not co-dependent on us. Jesus promised His followers, “I’ll be with you … day after day after day, right up to the end of this age” (Matt. 28:20 MSG).

So, the next time someone comes to you for help, I hope you ask yourself this question first: “Are you listening … Really listening?” (Matt. 11:15 MSG).

How have your listening skills helped you as a writer?

Revising Aloud

Tihamér_Margitay_Exciting_story“Reading aloud,” I’m always telling my writing students, “is the best way to revise.”

I encourage them—sometimes require them—to find read-aloud partners or start writing groups in which they take turns reading their work aloud.

“Hearing your sentences spoken lets you know whether they’re clear and natural-sounding—whether someone actually could speak them,” I explain. “And it doesn’t work to read to an empty room. You need a warm body, a listener, to complete the communication. Speaking is, after all, a collaborative act.”

Finding that read-aloud partner is easy at college, where everyone’s engaged in writing all the time. Outside the college setting, though, finding someone willing to listen can be a challenge.800px-Anker_Sonntagnachmittag_1861 People are busy. Few have time to sit still for an hour while some verbose writer drones on. That’s how they’ll imagine it when you propose reading to them. We Americans have lost—or never had—the habit of listening to people read. We had only the shallowest tradition of serial novels, released chapter by chapter as Dickens’ novels were and read to the whole family at fireside. And no comfy pubs—without blaring TVs—like the one where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their writer buddies hung out, drank beer, and read their work to one another. Writers who give public readings these days will tell you it’s hard to get even close friends to attend. Our lives are too busy for read-alouds.

I often recommend to writer friends that they make use of the lonely people in their lives: shut-in relatives, kid-imprisoned friends who wish they had a grownup to talk to, recently retired colleagues with time on their hands. 1280px-Anker-_Die_Andacht_des_Grossvaters_1893It sounds terrible, this “making use” of others, taking advantage of their neediness to assuage your own, but in my experience such mutual exchanges not only helped my writing but also transformed intended acts of mercy—“I should spend more time with my mother-in-law,” I was always telling myself—into pleasurable time together, which we both looked forward to. My mother-in-law not only got longed-for company but also felt needed; I got my warm body but also genuine enjoyment, without having to chide myselfHugo_Bürkner_Lesestunde (usually in vain) to, as Paul recommends, “give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7 NRSV). The mutual benefit, I found, guaranteed that cheerfulness, for both of us—because attentive listening and being listened to can’t help but nurture relationships.

My daughter Lulu has been on semester break from college for the past month, with a couple more weeks to go. It’s tricky having a grown daughter home that long. We’ve long since put our Christmas CDs away, but I’m still in the throes of Bing Crosby’s parental prophecy for the season: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”

Luckily, Lulu’s engrossed in the final revision stages of her senior project—a hundred-Amédée_Guérard_Bibelstundepage translation of and critical introduction to an East German book—and I’m busy trying to cut 30,000 words from a novel before sending it out, so we have tasks to distract us from the inevitable mother-daughter combat. Also, since we’re in about the same place in our revisions—where what we need most is to hear them aloud and find out if they work—we’ve established a read-aloud schedule: I read her a couple short chapters during her late breakfast, and she reads me one long chapter while I trim vegetables for dinner.

I can’t say it’s the perfect exchange my mother-in-law and I had. Lulu doesn’t end my readings, as my mother-in-law always did, with “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!” And, as a writer and teacher of writing, I give more critical feedback than Lulu really wants. But our reading fills two hours of our day with mostly pleasurable, mutually beneficial work. More importantly, the listening involved gives us both practice, at this complex juncture of our parental-filial journey, in navigating our new relationship as related but separate adults. As peers, in other words. Equals. Reciprocally heard, appreciated, and loved.

Comfort for the New Year

Photo/KarenJordan“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Cor. 1:4 NLT).

A New Year offers new opportunities and challenges. As I sense the needs around me, I often think, “What can I do to help those in need?”

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to respond. In fact, some people may say,”the devil is in the detail,” inferring that there’s some mysterious secret hidden in the details. That term comes from the original phrase “God is in the detail,” which reminds us that the details are always important.

Discovering the mysterious details of how to help others requires wisdom. And God promises to guide us in this discovery process. But He wants us to ask for HIS help first.  “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you … ” (Jms. 1:5 NLT).

Seek God first. The Lord promises to provide the guidance we need throughout our lives. Psalm 32:8 says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you” (NLT).

God often uses my experiences—good and bad—when I seek Him for direction in helping others. At times, He prompts me to share small things—like prayers, concerns, and a listening ear.

When my friend, Kathy, struggled with vertigo following her cancer treatments, I felt helpless to help her since she lived in another state. And I knew the misery of vertigo. When Kathy mentioned that she could not even read her Bible, I was able to read scriptures to her by phone.

Later, Kathy told me, “Your calls helped me survive my cancer treatments.”

Listen. In Matthew 11:15, Jesus asks His disciples, “Are you listening to me? Really listening?” (MSG).

As we seek God and ask questions, it’s important to listen for the answers. Sometimes instead of listening to God, I’m tempted to offer unsolicited advice to friends and family.

Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t want or need? Awkward! Our unsolicited gifts might actually offend instead of blessing others. Perhaps they need godly advice, not just a hasty opinion or thoughtless response.

Ask questions. I also ask questions when I’m trying to discern how to encourage others. What matters most to them? How can I discern how to help? What helped me when I faced a similar problem? What do I wish someone else had offered me when I faced my last crisis?

John 14:26 promises, “… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (NIV).

Tell the stories that matter most. As a Christian writer, I never want to lose sight of the needs of my audience. Author Anne Lamott offers this advice: “Write the books you really wished were out there in the world.”

During a crisis, I look for resources to help me find solutions for my current needs. Encouraging words heal my soul when I’m desperate for answers. And I’m grateful for the writers who have poured their lives into helpful devotionals and books for those troubling days.

So, “… even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (Phil. 2:17 NIV).

As you plan your projects for the New Year, consider offering some words that could help meet the needs of others.

“… Words are powerful; take them seriously” (Matt. 12:36 MSG).

Can you think of a book that helped you through a crisis?

Hearing What You Can’t Read

woman listeningI am always fascinated by our five senses—touch, smell, sight, taste, and hearing. I love the warmth of my husband’s hand when he clasps mine, the fragrant scent of a rose caught up on the morning breeze, or the tart pucker of a Granny Smith apple.

As writers, we know that adding the senses into our books makes the world our characters live in more real to the reader. But that’s not where I’m going with this post. My question to you is, when was the last time you listened to a book? I don’t mean just for pleasure, but to get into the depth of the story by using more than your eyes.

I have a Kindle that offers a “text to speech” option, which I’ve found to be available on many books. (I believe this is up to the author and/or publisher if they offer this choice and I’m sure it’s available on other readers as well.) It has a computer generated voice, which for me is fine, but you can go through this exercise with an audio book as well.

The trick is to listen to the words, but not become caught up in the story. It’s amazing what you can hear.

Rhythm: Did you know words and sentences have rhythm? When you listen to a story you can hear it. A good writer will create a steady beat with their words to slow the pace of the story. Or, speed it up to raise the tension as needed.

Choice of words: I’m a big proponent of not using the same word over and over again. I’m not advocating pulling out a thesaurus and running the gamut of possible choices, but just having an acute awareness of word choices. It makes the work more appealing. Fresh. You can “hear” the repeated words more than “read” them.

Story world: Has the author “painted” the world the character is in vividly enough that when you close your eyes while listening to a scene you can almost imagine yourself right in the middle? This aspect is hard to do when you need your eyes to read!

Emotions: Much like the story world, can you picture the characters’ actions? Feel their pain? Or laugh with them? This follows the line of showing instead of telling. When you listen to a book, you can “see” their reaction, like a movie screen playing on the backside of your eyelids.

I go through this exercise with many of my favorite authors. I take the time to learn from their writing style by listening to it. Then try to apply the concepts to my own writing.

So what do I do then? I always listen to what I’ve written. I email the Word doc to Amazon and it goes right to my Kindle. Then I go through the same exercise. Have I set the proper rhythm for the scene? Do I have words repeating that should be changed? Have I created a memorable scene mixed with real-life emotions?

Try it some time. You might be surprised what you hear that your eyes would have never seen.

Loving, Listening, and Writing

“The truth is that careful listening feels so much like love that most of us can hardly tell the difference.” –Dr. James Dobson

This quote was presented at a leadership meeting I attended last week and it has been on my mind ever since. February is known as the month of love. We Americans spend billions of dollars on flowers, candy, and jewelry every February 14th in an effort to communicate our love for our children, our spouses, or other significant people in our lives. Yet, according to Dr. Dobson, careful listening is one of the most loving gifts we can give to our friends and families.

My daughter Brianna communicated her need for my focused attention, even as a toddler.  If I attempted to do household chores or work on my computer while she was telling me a story, she would say, “Listen to me with your eyes, Mommy.”  She had a speech impediment at the time, so it sounded more like, “Lithen to me wiff your eyes, Mommy.” She was adorable. She was also correct in her assessment that her mother was not actually listening to what she was saying. Whenever possible, I would walk away from my computer or put down my dusting cloth, look her in the eyes, and give my storytelling toddler my full attention as she talked.

When asked what command in God’s Word is most important, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence. This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: Love others as well as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39 MSG).

We all like to know our thoughts have been heard. Carefully listening to the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others makes them feel validated and lets them know we value their ideas. It occurs to me that, as writers, careful listening will not only communicate love to the people we care about and enhance those relationships, but it will also improve our writing.

what did you say

Writing requires inspiration and inspiration requires input. Listening—really listening—to the people God places in our lives is a great way to spur fresh ideas. Children often have an amusing, unfiltered way of describing our world. Older adults, if we’ll take the time to listen, offer a wealth of knowledge and wisdom gained through their many life experiences. A husband brings perspective to an emotional topic. A wife enhances historical facts with empathy and compassion. Carefully listening to humanity—even strangers in a busy city park—can provide fresh ideas for a blog post or inspire a new twist in plot for a novel.

This February—the month when we talk a lot about love—let’s love like Jesus said we should. Let’s love our God with our passion and our prayers and with the intellect He has given us. Let’s love people by carefully listening to their thoughts and feelings. Keep a pen handy to jot down a quote or a blog post idea (after the conversation is over!), but be fully present as you interact with the people God has placed in your life. Listen to them with your eyes as well as with your ears.

Our relationships will be richer and we may even discover that our writing takes on new depth.

How has careful listening enhanced your relationships or your writing?