By: Kathleen Pickering www.kathleenpickering.com
Where co-blogger, James Scott-Bell, spoke in his last blog about listening to your characters as they unfold to bring their story to life, I’ll discuss how listening to the world around you can uncover a story.
I can guarantee you that every published author you meet will tell you how something they heard triggered a novel. If folks wonder how an author can accept a multi-book contract without even knowing what they’ll produce, it’s because authors listen as intently as they write. Stories are floating all around you: in the news, eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant, elevator or train, chatting with colleagues at work, conferences, with strangers, or for me the best source—family drama.
Sometimes I’ve spoken with people who tell me something they’ve never told others before, and they’re suddenly shocked that they’ve revealed their story. That’s because I have honed listening skills that make others comfortable in talking with me. Please understand, I don’t listen to folks to elicit deep dark secrets (though that would be nice!) but, because long ago, I discovered that I find people fascinating. No joke. I love to listen to what others have to say. If I’m talking with you it’s because I am genuinely interested in you.
A few years back, we were on vacation in Montana. From a single question I asked the cook at the dude ranch I learned that she was hiding from her drug dealer husband way down in New Mexico. This woman’s story spawned one of the proposals that Harlequin bought in my three book contract. Added bonus? A family member is an undercover narcotics detective who is telling me specific details to give the story life. Am I listening? You bet!
The next listening coupe was from my niece. She is an emergency room nurse who had a bout with cancer and survived. (YAY!) Listening to her recount her determination to outwit her fears and stay courageous during her treatment became book two of my Harlequin proposal. And, the love story that grew from her ordeal is so romantic it gives me goose bumps. I can’t wait to write the book based on her story!
The third plot hit me unexpectedly. I was discussing with friends the plight of rape victims who become pregnant and learned that several US states have no laws protecting women from rapists seeking custody of children born from their attack. Not only did this make me want to use some of Steven King’s horror tactics to stop such an atrocity, but hearing this information ignited the first of the three proposed novels I’ll be writing for Harlequin.
So, if you want to tap into a world of stories waiting to be written, then listen. And listen well. There are two approaches to good listening. One for business, one for empathy. I use both. Here are the first five steps offered by business consultant, Bernard Ferrari, to hone listening skills. These work exceptionally well when interviewing someone:
1. Show Respect. If you’re seeking information, let the person to whom you are speaking know that you value their knowledge and/or opinion, so are asking for their response. That way, they understand your agenda.
2. Listen to Everyone. Developing a good rapport not only with folks in the industry, but anyone in your sphere of existence lays the groundwork for “nuggets of gold” to surface in conversations.
3. Be Quiet! Even though as an excellent story teller, you can “top this” in sharing stories when someone is speaking, refrain! Let your conversation partner speak for 80% of the time. Use your 20% for thoughtful interaction. Remember, you are the one listening here.
4. Understand Emotions. Avoid having important discussions when you are tense, angry, upset or frightened. These emotions will distract you from listening. Sometimes it’s better to know when you should postpone and reschedule an interview (or listening) opportunity.
5. Ask Questions. When you are listening well, asking questions helps bring forward new facts. Even if you disagree with the speaker, phrasing your response with a question shows you are open, flexible and interested in their point of view. A well phrased question can also help the speaker think in a new way or reach different conclusions.
Now, for the second approach to listening, I have learned that in making an emotional connection, the most important fact to remember is to listen to others how you would want them to listen to you. Here are five additional steps to creating an emotional connection with your conversation partner:
6. Body Language. Face the speaker, sit straight or lean forward to show your attentiveness. (Actually, as a good listener, this happens automatically because you ARE interested!)
7. Maintain eye contact. You don’t have to drown in those limpid pools, but while someone is speaking stay glued to the discussion. Don’t let your eyes wonder over their shoulder, or stare at the floor or passersby as they talk. We all know what that feels like. It’s an instant turn off to the person speaking.
8. Create an empty space. This is my most favorite tool for listening. I start a conversation with absolutely no expectations of what my partner will say. It’s what I’ve learned to call an empty space between speakers. The response I get from my question can host a tapestry of answers; all from which new threads of conversation can be lifted. If you have expectations of what your partner will say, it clouds the clarity of information opportunities. You end up unconsciously steering the conversation, or worse, not fully hearing what was said.
9. Minimize external distractions. If your conversation is over a meal, or while giving a workshop, put down your fork for a minute to listen, or stop flipping through your notes while a question is being asked. Again, it’s the one-on-one message you give while listening that keeps the comfort level engaged.
10. Mirror the response. To ensure the speaker that you understood his statement or question, it helps to say, “So, what you’re saying/asking is . . .” and repeat their statement in your own words. This gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding, or better yet, confirm that you understood. Again, mirroring shows your conversation partner that you are interested in what he/she is saying. It not only connects them with you, but enriches your understanding of the person about whom you’ve taken time to learn more.
Every listening encounter is a learning experience. Every listening encounter is a chance to connect with your world. Can you tell us here on The Kill Zone when a listening encounter spawned a story for you?
I am listening.
Write on, my friends!