Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Listening and Trust

"Genuine communication," writes Christina Feldman in the Beginner's Guide to Buddhist Meditation (Rodmell Press), "is a two-way process.... We often listen in only a perfunctory way, straining to find the moment when we can interject our own words."

She offers this and many other insights--ranging from strategies for calming one's mind to meditative-like thoughts about the simplest acts of daily life--in her slim guide. But it was her comment about genuine communication that struck me as particularly apt a few weeks ago as I struggled to listen to my characters, hoping that I might hear something that I hadn't heard before.

I don't know about you, but often I find myself trying to conduct conversations with characters who emerge out of the depths of my imagination like harried strangers rushing up the crowded steps of a New York City subway station.

Why are you rushing? I want to shout. Stay and talk a while!

But they simply give me a curious glance and then blur into the crowd as I step out of their way, shy about approaching them. After all, they're strangers, aren't they? I'm never sure what to say... or if I should even try to start a conversation with them.

Mostly, I want them to stop a moment at the top of the station's exit, look me in the eye, and share their stories with me.

And I want to see them--really see them--and to listen so closely that I can feel their voices vibrating in my heart.

So, as I tried to make the acquaintance of a new character (a "new" character who first appeared in a story years ago), I found Feldman's reminder about communication as a "two way process" especially helpful.

That's because Feldman suggests "when you listen with openness to what another person is saying to you, you prove yourself to be... open to hearing something you may not have anticipated... and open to understanding the heart and mind of the person speaking to you."

Such qualities of listening are essential to writers, especially if you're seeking a way to learn a character's hidden agenda.


You need to be prepared to hear something that you might not have anticipated.

And whether it's shocking or not, you need to be able to accept without judgment or criticism the heart and mind of the character speaking to you.

Here are a few more bits of advice from Feldman that may help you listen more closely to your characters:
Notice when you begin to judge or dismiss the person speaking to you rather than listening to the entirety of what they have to say.

It is particularly important that we are able to be receptive when someone is upset, hurt, or angry.

Rather than being lost in their barrage of words or emotion, you could begin to sense all the ways in which they are communicating with you: their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and manner of speech, in addition to the words they are using.

They may not always be asking you for solutions or answers but for your willingness to truly hear what they are communicating to you.
Each of these points is interesting as it applies to communicating with our characters, isn't it?

What's also interesting is the way meditating on how to listen more closely to people can help us learn to listen much more closely to our characters.

"Be a compassionate presence," Feldman advises her students, "someone who listens with openness, honesty, and understanding."

Indeed, listen with compassion to your characters--strangers and old friends alike--who appear in your stories.

If you can learn to cultivate compassion when you listen to your characters, you may find that in time they'll begin to entrust you with their stories.

To learn more about Christina Feldman and her work, visit:

For more on deep listening, visit:


Eric said...

I very much enjoyed this article; good advice, and helpful in generating a three-dimensional character, as apposed to the writer himself in a change of clothes. In developing more versatile people, help is always welcome. Thanks.

Bruce said...


It's interesting how just a slight shift in perspective can allow a writer to see the many dimensions of a character rather than merely a reflection of himself, isn't it?

Until reading Feldman's work, I hadn't thought about deep listening as a crucial part of the process. Deep revisions, yes. But I'd never associated deep revisions with deep listening.

Now I find that "listening" is as much a part of the writing process as putting words down on paper.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.