HABIT 5: SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND

THEN To Be Understood

One of the most basic, and yet most important, needs of the human heart is to be understood. The same might be said of the writerly soul. Our voices are born of our life experiences matched with an ingrained need to tell stories, and to say something important to us through those stories (also known as theme.  See what I did there just now? Oh, yeah.)

Habit 5 is the natural offshoot of Habit 4: Think Win/Win. It’s about listening, truly listening. Most of the time human nature dictates that when someone else is talking you’re already forming a response—the pithier, the better. ‘Cause we’re such clever little Dickies, aren’t we? Of course we are.

The effective Word Wrangler listens. Really listens. Why? Because people are where the stories are. There is a wealth of experience in the world other than ours, and a writer’s journey to discover these stories is never over. True listening seeks to learn, and thus to understand. Shrinks get paid a whole lotta mullah to do just that.

You Have The Right To Remain Silent

Franklin Covey calls the highest possible listening skill Empathic listening. It is the art—and it is just that—of listening without all the habits raging to consume us while another person is talking. It is listening without intent to advise, share, refute, imply, solve, judge, agree, question, analyze, sing, dance, hum, whistle, recite the grocery list, etc. It is:

  • Focusing on the speaker, not just remaining silent while waiting for your turn to talk.
  • Repeating what the speaker says in a way that seeks understanding.
  • Not fearing silence. Zipping lip is, a lot of the time, the very best thing a listener can do. If someone is talking, it’s usually because they want to be heard.
  • Seeking verification of how the speaker feels. Rephrasing or summarizing what they have said can provide the speaker with the feeling that they have been heard. And isn’t that what we all want, really?

Hearing Is Believing

Where Empathic listening comes into play for the effective Word Wrangler is in finding the stories. Yes, I know. Word Wrangling is all about story telling, not story hearing. But think about this: isn’t reading just another form of listening? How else do stories get passed along? And you do want people to read your stories, and think they’re the awesome in the sauce, right? So listening, not just to what is said, but what isn’t (between the lines, as it were) not only gives the savvy Word Wrangler an ear for dialogue, but one for subtext. Subtext is King.

Ever hear someone describe some little anecdote around the water cooler, or start a sentence with “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . .” and your brain went into overdrive in the fast lane of “Whoa, hey, there’s a story there, boy howdy”? These are magical moments. Cherish them. Pat them. Call them George. Ask some probing questions. Show interest for your own nefarious purposes. Listen. A lot of times it’s easy to forget there’s a whole marvelous world swirling around outside our heads.

It’s A Mad House

Know who else you should listen to? The voices in your head. Know who they are? Characters, all striving to be born, to live and love and learn and despair and wallow in all the frailties human beings are heir to. Characters are people, too, don’tchaknow.

There are four parts of my character development plan. I generally develop 3-4 main characters, and each one gets a file: Protagonist, Antagonist, Romantic Interest and/or Helper. Here’s what’s in the file:

  1. Character Sketch: Everything from hair/eye color, mannerisms, career/financials, to where they were born, where they live now, what they drive and what their favorite room in the house is—and what the view out the window is like. I give each main character a sacred object, something they’re attached to, like a weapon or vehicle or even a pair of boots or piece of jewelry. Something that doesn’t define them, per se, but is wholly recognizable as theirs. I also like to include pictures and “cast” my characters, since I’m a visual person.
  2. Back Story: This will include a timeline from birth through various life milestones until the time the story opens. Any or all of these can open a door into memory, to get an idea of their experiences and how it influences the way they tick, the way they feel. What this works great for is timed writing: 5, 10, or 15-minutes stints in a notebook to warm the hand and mind while getting into the head of a character. This works really well for when I’m stuck.
  3. Dream: This is another really great writing prompt, and can help lever off the top of a character’s brain so you can get to the ooey gooey bits. Use the start line: In the dream he (or she), and do a timed writing. Highlight or circle all the repeated images (these come in handy for symbolism) and look them up in a dream interpretation guide. You may be surprised by what you might learn.
  4. Wardrobe: I love this bit. I get to go “shopping” for my characters without having to spend any money. I’ll describe a character’s style, use pictures, decided what’s appropriate for their age, career, where they live, their financial situation the events of a scene. Catalogs and online stores make excellent reference tools for this. That old adage about telling a lot about a person by their shoes is more true than you think.

In order to fully develop a character, you have to listen to what they’re trying to tell you, and with a clear, open mind. Stories not only begin with people, but live on through them and in them. By taking yourself out of the equation, stories thrive. And isn’t that what we want?

Next Time—Habit 6: Synergize

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