“You have to listen better,” your acting teacher says. So you really look at the other person, laser focus on them and say to yourself, “Listen… listen… listen… “
Then you see the playback and you look like a psychotic deer caught in alien headlights. You’re straining and bug-eyed and robotic. Why does the work look so inauthentic? The only thing you were focused on was listening better!
But not really. The only thing you were listening to was your own voice repeating that word over and over in your head until it lost all meaning. When you’re doing that you can’t possibly be listening to the other person.
This word “listening” is thrown around a lot. It’s often accompanied by “being present” and “living in the moment.” But do you really know how to listen and be present?
Sure you do; you do it every day when you’re not acting. In fact, you do it unconsciously in just about every moment in your life. But when you’re acting, you’re so self-conscious and focused on impressing your audience that this innate ability suddenly feels as foreign as eating with your toes.
So let’s get you out of your head and into the moment. First, a quick lesson in…
Human Beings and the Art of Communication
#1: What does “listening” really mean?
When you are truly listening, you care. A lot. You care enough about the other person to pay attention to what they are doing and saying.
So what makes you care? You need something from them. It could be as simple as a nod in agreement or as grand as the nuclear warhead code. Simply put, you listen to see if you’re getting what you want.
#2: What does it really mean to “be in the moment?”
You listen to see if you’re getting what you want, right? So…
What happens when you get what you want? You are changed.
What happens if you don’t get what you want? You are changed.
What happens if you’re not sure if you got what you wanted? You are changed.
That’s what being in the moment is all about, folks: being affected by the other person. (AKA “reacting” – sound familiar?) You cannot be changed unless you care. When you care, you automatically listen and then organically, unconsciously react.
Congrats, you passed! Let’s move onto…
Actors and the Art of Communication
Based on what we know about real human behavior, what must the actor do to authentically listen and be in the moment?
#1: You must be able to answer this question: What do you (the character) want?
For instance: your mother just read your first manuscript and you’re waiting for her reaction to it. So you’re really looking for her approval. (Don’t deny it; we all need mommy’s approval.)
#2: You must know why you need what you need.
Answering the question and knowing why isn’t enough, of course. You must also create the imagined relationships in such a way that you truly feel them.
So why do you need mom’s approval of your manuscript? Because she’s never approved of any of your creative projects; she just thought they were “phases” and not real jobs. But this book, the one you’ve been writing for over two years, the one she just finished reading, this is your baby. And whether you like it or not, you really would like to hear “Good job, honey.” Or at least a smile; just a smile would be enough.
That is a real relationship. That is what it means to truly need something from someone else, which allows you to organically listen. Then when she hugs you, you’ll feel it and respond authentically without even trying. Or if all she’s says is, “I finished it. What do you want for dinner?” you’ll feel that and respond authentically.
A Quick Math Lesson
Deeply caring = feeling what you need/want = truthful listening = authentically being in the moment
It’s not enough to tell yourself to “listen better.” It’s not enough to just look at the other person. You must know why you’re listening. The relationship must feel very real to you and whatever you need from the other person must feel real as well.
So if you’re having trouble truly listening – that is, truly being affected by the other person – then revisit your relationship and your need. Make them real. Make them of the utmost importance. And then you’ll listen without even trying.