But That's Not What I Meant!
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
You’ve probably heard that, maybe even said it. It’s how we feel when someone misunderstands us, if only they would listen. Listening is easy, right? We all do it all day, every day. We are continuously bombarded with input. We get pretty good at filtering that input, sifting through all the data thrown at us every day looking for the bit that interests us… or maybe just agrees with our own viewpoint. The rest we block. The habits we build filtering out the noise we don’t want to deal with are the same ones that work against us in a scene, when we are faced with a scene partner with really important information.
That is every improviser or actor in a scene. Our scene partner has really important information, and they may not hand it to us on a platter, so if we aren’t listening we can miss out on the heart of a scene. Actors and improvisers are in the same boat, each is susceptible to the trap of listening for what they want to hear and blocking what they don’t want to deal with. They also have the same stakes; the real story in the scene can be lost. This is why improvisers have words like “blocking,” we all do it at one time or another, so we have to identify it and deal with it. There are two kinds of blocking, active blocking, where we ignore something so we can tell our own version of the story uninterrupted; and passive blocking, where we didn’t even realize we missed something important because we didn’t hear it. We weren’t listening.
Not that it’s easy, listening is work. It’s an active process, and we need to engage in the activity if we’re going to get anything out of it. Like most activities, we can improve with practice; we can get better at listening by listening with intent. Now this is another of those “sounds simple enough” moments in our lives that is actually kind of challenging. It’s listening with the intention of not missing anything.
Here’s how I see listening. Listening is the act of attending to all the messages sent to us by the person we are trying to communicate with. Communicating is the key, because we can communicate a feeling with word, tone of voice, look, physical action, or even by withholding all of that. It takes a person to send a message, and another to receive it, to listen to it. To listen we need to try to see and hear everything that our partner is giving us.
Listen to the words. Whether a word is spoken, signed, or written it conveys a specific meaning. Writers create worlds with them, giving us everything we need to understand the story and how the characters are affected by it. But the average person, writing the way they would speak, is at a huge disadvantage. We don’t normally speak in a way that describes what we really feel about something, we let other cues cover that for us; tone, inflection, pace, even volume. So when we send a text message writing what we want to say exactly as we would speak it, we run a real risk of being misunderstood. I’m an actor, give me a line of text and I can read it in a lot of different ways, and most won’t be what the writer intended. I’ve seen fights spawned by some pretty benign messages because the reader was interpreting based on their expectations, with no idea what was really intended, the real context.
Context is important; it changes the meaning of the words. Offering breakfast to someone who just spent the night is going to be very different from offering it to your mother when she comes to visit. The situation is driving the meaning behind the words. Sometimes we don’t get to know what is motivating the person on the other side of the conversation, but if they hate us, tolerate us, or love us it’s going to affect how they speak to us. Just like our own feelings affect how we say things to people.
How we say it can offer another level of information, “why don’t you have some breakfast,” with tears in yours eyes could signal the last time you’ll see each other, clipped words and tones could really be saying “…and then leave.” A softened offering might mean “don’t leave yet,” but if it’s spoken with little more tension it could be a signal that “we need to talk.” Just the tone and pace of the delivery can change the whole meaning.
Actions also speak to us, the way a person changes the channel with a remote can tell us a lot without words at all… stabbing the button with a finger, panicked search for any different station, or calmly switching and then turning away from us. Each carries its own message.
That’s a lot of input for us to take in, and the job is to take as much of it in as we can and then let it affect us. We have to listen with every sense and decide how we feel about it. Then we let it inform the next thing we say or action we take. This way we’re not responding from our own planned out map of the scene, we’re reacting. Listening plants us in the moment, because instead of reciting memorized or planned lines, we are responding to input using the words that either come to us in the moment (improv) or are given to us in a script.
But what if our partner isn’t listening to us? We can only control ourselves, right? True, but it actually doesn’t change our mission. If our partner takes to the scene already knowing what they want and not listening to us, how does that make us feel? Because that is the effect we need to play in that moment, because if we’re being blown-off by someone we’re trying to talk to, we react. We get angry, we seethe, get louder or faster, more intent on making our point and being heard. What we can’t afford to do is just roll over and let them trample us. Let’s face it, when we’re in the audience we love to see someone fight for themselves, we can cheer that person on. When someone just gives up and allows another person to control them, we start to lose interest; it’s hard to care about someone who doesn’t care enough about themselves to fight.
Listening to our scene partner, responding to what they’re telling us by words, tones, actions, or expressions. That should be our guide to the scene, and if our partner is listening too they will respond to us in kind and the scene can come to life through the interaction.