The Art of Listening

“Wah wa, wah wa, wah wa.” For those of us who grew up on Peanuts, that combination of letters makes us think of Linus’ teacher, Miss Othmar. Miss Othmar might not have been the best orator in the comic universe, but the peanuts could have done a better time of listening! Lack-luster listening skills plagued other comic children as well, most notably Calvin.

The comical interactions between the teacher and students are amusing but also true to life. How many of us hear “wah wa, wah wa, wah wa” when anyone is talking about something that doesn’t interest us? This isn’t limited just to authority figures. Have you ever caught yourself waiting for a friend to just shut up so you can say the very clever thing you’ve been rehearsing while they blabbed on? I know it’s difficult for me to shut my mouth and focus my mind on what another person is saying, even if the speaker is someone I care about and the topic is something I am passionate about. The truth is, I am too self-absorbed to listen.

Learning to listen is another reason I love the Meisner approach. This takes us back to the Repetition exercise. As I explained in Truth Part 1, Partner A looks away, waiting for the Observer to tell Partner A to look back at Partner B. Partner A must say the very first thing he notices about his partner. In the early stages you aren’t allowed to purposely make any changes. The goal is to get the participants to learn to really listen and not to anticipate what the other person is going to say, even though they already know what is going to be said. A useful skill for a thespian! At this stage the only time the exercise may change is if a participant misspeaks. The partners must be focusing on what is actually being said, and not what the word they think is going to be said. If either participant makes a mistake, the other must not correct back to the original word. The Repetition changes to reflect what the partners really hear what each other say. For example:

Partner A: Nose                                                                                                          

Partner B: Nose                                                                                                               

Partner A: Nose                                                                                                           

Partner B: Nose                                                                                                            

Partner A: Nose                                                                                                           

Partner A: Nose                                                                                                           

Partner B: Nose                                                                                                           

Partner B: Nose                                                                                                           

Partner A: Nose                                                                                                          

Partner B: Nose                                                                                                            

Partner A: (slipping) Rose                                                                                             

Partner B: (laughing at the mistake) Rose                                                                     

Partner A: (laughing) Rose                                                                                           

Partner B: Rose                                                                                                               

Partner A: Rose                                                                                                               

Partner B: Rose                                                                                                               

Partner A: Rose                                                                                                                

Partner B: Ose                                                                                                                

Partner A: Ose                                                                                                                 

Partner B: Ose                                                                                                           

Observer: Okay, stop.

If the partners weren’t paying close attention to what each other was saying they would miss the mistakes and continue saying “Nose”. One never knows what will happen in a repetition exercise. Sometimes it remains monotonously the same, other times it changes wildly. In an exercise I performed with a student last spring we started out with “Green” and somehow ended up with “Korea”.

The skill of listening well is developed further in the Three Moments Game. Partner A asks a question, Partner B repeats the question, then Partner A says what emotion was behind Partner B’s words. The subtext of emotion leads them into a more complicated variation of the repetition exercise. The following Three Moment Exchange happened last spring. (You may infer that Partner A is the same student that asked, “Do you think I’m handsome?”. Your inference is correct.)

Partner A: Do you think you’re beautiful?                                                                     

Partner B: Do I think I’m beautiful?                                                                               

Partner A: You don’t think you’re beautiful.                                                                 

Partner B: I don’t think I’m beautiful.

 The repetition went on for a while as the two of them talked through repetition why she didn’t think she was beautiful and how that affected her. Afterwards, we talked together as a group about it. Partner A listened well to Partner B’s repeated question. It helped that Partner B’s response was open and transparent, but it was still important that Partner A listened well. If he hadn’t, the repetition would have progressed with out the sensitivity that he heard needed to be present.

As I look forward to starting up another session of Meisner exercises, I am particularly eager to work on developing the participant’s, and my own, ability to listen.  In a culture where silence is abhorred and one must always have background noise turned on, the theater is a wonderful place for actors and audience members to practice focusing on another person’s words and the truth and meaning that is behind them.