Being a good listener means being an active listener by being fully present when someone is talking to you. Making eye contact when someone is speaking helps to connect us to one another. It also keeps us focused on what is being said, rather than what we are thinking. We need to not only hear words, but also to read body language and understand feelings.
So often I find myself searching for what my character would say, not because I’m looking for the funniest line or the most brilliant game move. Those things are usually way out of my reach. No, I just have trouble knowing what my character wants to say. The answer is simple, and something we use every day: eye contact. Scott Jennings emphasized it during the recent Level 2. “The next line is in your scene partner’s eyes.”
Eye contact lets you and your scene partner know each other, and when you know each other, you know what you want to say. Once I make eye contact, I discover that my next line is, indeed, right there. More importantly, it is often something completely unexpected and delightful.
It is also important to listen and pay attention to what our scene partner is giving us, instead of spending the time while they're talking thinking of what we're going to say next. We can't do that. Whatever we're going to say next hinges directly on what our scene partner is saying now. We need to know what that is in order to respond.
We need to not only hear words, but also to read body language and understand feelings. The posture and attitude of our scene partner speaks volumes about who we are and how we are feeling about each other. When you're out in the world, watch people interact with each other. Watch their body language and learn what it means. Learn how to use it in your scenework to express what your words are not necessarily saying. And pay attention to your scene partner’s body language and listen to it. Give it the same weight as you do their words.
We don't have to agree with everything or anything that is being said, but listening with an open mind is respectful to the speaker and it allows us to understand the other person and ourselves better. By letting go of assumptions and hearing what is being said, as well as the tone of voice the speaker is using, we can better understand our differences and perhaps find some similarities.
As improvisers, we do have to agree with each other about the reality of the scene. We can’t build anything together if we don’t. But we don’t always have the same idea coming into a scene. Sometimes we have very different ideas. Without one of us completely dropping our thing, which is jarring to the players and also the audience, how do we reconcile our two different ideas and agree on a reality? The way we build the reality is by listening and respecting each other’s idea, and accepting and incorporating it into our own. In this way, two seemingly different realities can become one.
Reflect back to the speaker that you understand and empathize with their feelings of happiness, anxiety, and/or sadness. Ask questions if you don't understand, but respect boundaries if the speaker seems uncomfortable. Sometimes, being a good listener means listening to the silence in between words. Being a good listener is easy - simply listen with your ears, as well as your heart.
Listen to the words your scene partner is saying and acknowledge them. Don’t spend all your energy and attention on the nuance and forget to hear the actual words. Respond to the thing that was just said according to the reality you are creating together. No matter what else has gone on in the scene, no matter what the subtleties of body language and eye contact tell us, the words are out there now, and they must be responded to.
It seems so complicated: read the eyes, read the body, hear the words, play the game. In real life we all do it every day. In real reality. When we improvise, we should just think about the fact that we are creating a reality, and we can communicate with each other in that reality in exactly the same way we do in real reality. If that makes any sense at all.