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High Culture

Listening: The Most Important Skill That Nobody Teaches

Improvisational theater, an often overlooked genre, involves dynamic lessons on listening that can help all kinds of professional relationships and improve conversation. 

In Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, executive vice president and CEO, respectively, of The Second City, address the importance of skillful listening in professional settings and demonstrate useful strategies drawn from improvisational theatre (improv). 

Drawing on years of experience working with collaborative improv troupes, they note that the core tenets of the genre cultivate a caliber of attentiveness to others that newcomers to the craft are often surprised to learn they have not cultivated. Success in the purely spontaneous narrative form, they note, relies on listening to the totality of what other participants say before responding. More generally, in Yorton’s words, this amounts to having “to listen to understand as opposed to just listening merely to respond.” Performers of improv must necessarily be attentive to the entirety of what their collaborators say lest the performance become imbalanced or incoherent. This contrasts with a common (and largely unconscious) practice in daily life of passively waiting for the chance to utter predetermined monologues or defend one’s fixed ideas.

For the uninitiated, the powerful relationship of these listening practices and its attendant cultivation of intimate camaraderie is on display at the outset of Don’t Think Twice, the new film written by, directed by, and starring stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia. [Notably, the movie also stars an alumnus of The Second City: Keegan-Michael Key.] The members of the improv troupe at the center of the film display a dynamic and seamless chemistry through which they are able to generate creative ideas with one another. 

The importance of effective listening practices in effective professional relationships is immense, yet it often goes underemphasized in favor of personal productivity. Often, workplaces are isolated. Even environments encouraging teamwork bring pressure to be the most active participant or a lone leader rather than a conscientious collaborator. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, writer, and activist, writes in his book The Art of Communicating of the necessity of communicating with mindful attentiveness to others in the workplace:

The way you think about your work and your work relationships affects how you communicate in your work environment. You may be under the impression that the purpose of your work is to offer a service to others or to produce an object or commodity. But while at work, you’re also producing thoughts, speech, and actions. Communication is as much a part of your job as is the end product. If you communicate well in your work environment, not only do you enjoy yourself more, but you create a harmonious atmosphere that will carry over into your work. Everything you do will have a stronger element of compassion and be of greater benefit to more people.

Hanh elucidates how the common misguided and unconscious tendency to focus only on one’s own reactions, ideas, and public performance can be deceptively myopic: our actions, work, and self-interest are often inextricably intertwined with the minds, feelings, and interests of others.

What cognitive skills can we use to develop the improv-isers abilities to, as Yorton and Hanh emphasize, listen openly to the totality of our peers’ thoughts and feelings before composing a response and reacting to them? Writer, speaker, and activist Parker J. Palmer founded the Center for Courage & Renewal, an organization that aims “to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it,” on precisely such principles. In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Palmer lists three “outward and visible signs” of open listening:

  • Allowing brief, reflective silences to fall between speakers, rather than rushing to respond—silences that honor those who speak, give everyone time to absorb what has been said, and slow things down enough so that anyone who wishes to speak can do so
  • Responding to the speaker not with commentary but with honest, open questions that have no other intent than to help the speaker hear more deeply whatever he or she is saying…
  • Honoring whatever truth-telling has been done by speaking one’s own truth openly…placing it alongside prior expressions as simply personal testimony, with no intent of affirming or negating other speakers
  • Palmer argues that we can work to listen effectively and honestly by allowing for thoughtful silences in conversations, responding not at people with our own solutions but to people with questions aimed at allowing them to reveal themselves more deeply, and always respecting other’s gestures of honest communication – regardless of what the content may be.

    These strategies are resonant with the principle tenets of improv, which require that participants be entirely open and responsive to the will of troupe-mates and spend more time listening than speaking. Thus, it turns out to be hardly surprising that a new book on effective business-practices and communication should be grounded in lessons from this often overlooked form of theatre.


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