by Kat Coe
Group work is an important part of the writing process.
Whether you are in a class setting, with pieces being workshopped by other students, or working with an agent or editor, developing your communication skills is vital. Research has shown that most people do a much better job of talking, than of listening.
Pay attention to your internal reactions during any time of critique or criticism. Are you busy, formulating responses in your head, or are you actually listening to what the person is saying about your work? Are you too busy taking someone’s reaction to your writing personally to really hear what they are saying about your writing? If you want to improve, as a writer (and as a human being!) you need to be able to receive input with an open and willing mind.
If your focus is truly to become a great writer you are going to need to separate your emotional self from your writing enough that you can do the work it takes to prune/edit/change your piece into what it needs to become in order that it be successful.
One of the most necessary skills you can develop is practicing the art of active listening.
Active listening is a communication technique that fosters mutual understanding between two or more parties. To be an active listener, you must maintain your focus on the speaker. Your mind cannot be distracted with potential arguments against the speaker’s point of view. You must not assume that you already know what they are saying, or why they are saying it. When you assume that you already know what someone is saying, or what the meaning is behind what they are saying, you are only half-listening to them. An active listener chooses to hear what the speaker is saying to them, then verifies that what they have heard is, actually, correct. This verification does not mean that the listener is communicating agreement with the speaker. Rather, its intention is to communicate to the speaker what it is that the listener has heard them say. This process strengthens the ability of both parties to truly understand what the other person’s meaning and intention are. So, how do you do it?
First, listen. Listen closely and with an open mind. If you find yourself distracted by an argument or defense in your head, ask the person who is speaking to repeat what they said. When you feel that you’ve really heard what the speaker is saying, verify that what you’ve heard is accurate. The most successful way to do this is to respond to the speaker with a sentence that begins, “Ok. So, what I hear you saying is…” or, “What I think you’re saying is…”, followed by your own wording of what they said. Formulating your response in this fashion puts the speaker at ease – because the emphasis of your intention, at this point, is clearly to clarify communication, rather than to disagree or defend your own ideas.
Here’s an example:
Speaker: I’m not sure I like this section. It seems, I don’t know… really sing-songy, or something. It just doesn’t sound like it fits in with the rest of what you’ve written. It’s just too much alliteration, too much (kind of) rhyme, too much… it’s just weird.
Active Listener: Hmm. Ok. So, what I’m hearing you say is that you don’t like the rhythm of this section. You feel like I’ve used too much rhyme and similar sounds?
Speaker: Yeah. Well, yeah. I guess, actually that it’s not the sounds as much as it is the rhythm. I mean, listen to this, (the speaker reads an example portion of the writing), do you see what I mean? I’m reading along, loving what you’re writing and then all of a sudden I get to this section and feel like I’m thrown into a nursery rhyme, or something. It’s just totally different – and it’s jarring for your reader.
Active Listener: Ok. So, you are bothered by the rhythm. Do you think if I changed the words so that they weren’t all so balanced, meter-wise, this section would be more successful for you?
At this point, the speaker may than agree with the listener’s interpretation of their critique, or they may go on to clarify that, in fact, what they didn’t like about this section wasn’t really the rhythm. The rhythm of the section simply brought to their attention that the content of it seemed an ill fit with the rest of what was happening in the work. Many times, active listening will help the speaker to better understand, for himself, what it is that he is truly trying to communicate. Oftentimes, the speaker himself doesn’t realize that he is communicating something other than what he is intending.
The wonderful thing about active listening is that it creates an open dialogue, a safe place for both parties to work out the positive intention of what the other is saying. Many times, active listening makes room in the conversation for the speaker to open up, further than they normally might, and provide deeper, more insightful feedback.
Using the active listening technique may feel slightly clunky, at first. You may even feel silly using the phrases I have suggested. Just keep practicing! The more you use active listening, the more success you will have in not only your writers’ groups, but other areas of your life, as well. Active listening doesn’t just work in group-work settings; it prospers communication in marriage, parenting – all relationships!