Listening, Responding, Specificity, Commitment

April is Autism Awareness & Acceptance Month. We are thrilled to bring you this special reflection from Engager Jill Frutkin.

When I teach Improv, I say these four words over and over: Listening, Responding, Specificity, Commitment.

I tell my students not to worry about being funny, or being a great performer- as long as you are listening, responding, and being specific and committed in your communication, you’re doing it right.

Improvisation is by definition unscripted. No one knows what is going to happen next. In order to communicate, we need to listen. Full listening happens not only with our ears, but with our eyes, our hearts, and our entire bodies. When we are really listening, we’re taking in more than just words. We are listening to how someone feels. We look at their eyes, we read their body language, and we listen to their facial expressions.

As we listen, we respond. If we have honestly listened, we can respond honestly. In Improv, sometimes response makes us laugh. This laughter doesn’t come from a clever or calculated place, it comes instead from honesty. The best laughs I’ve had in an Improv class are from responses that in theory should not have been funny, but because they came from honest listening, they were joyfully hilarious in their humanity.

Sometimes a response doesn’t make us laugh: it makes us think. An honest response says a lot about a person and the way they think and feel about the world. When two people are honestly listening and responding, a productive conversation is happening.

In EE Improv classes for Professionals, we look at communication through the lens of how it can help us in our adult lives. How can honest listening and responding make a meeting more productive? How can it further a collaboration? How does full body listening improve the way you pitch to a client? We’re adults who have been communicating for years, but we all have ways we can improve.

For the past four years, I worked as a Special Education teacher. I taught 6:1:1 self- contained classrooms for young students diagnosed with autism. In addition to ABCs and 123s, I worked with students on improving crucial communication skills and emotional literacy.

The saying goes: You’ve met one person with autism means you’ve met one person with autism. My students were diverse learners: I had non verbal students who could read above grade level, verbal students with sensory processing needs, students who never spoke but would sing when music was played.

My students taught me a lot about communication.

You can let someone know what you’re feeling without saying a word.
You can listen without using your ears.

I learned to listen to my students’ body language. I listened to their words, and the individual ways they used their words. I listened to the sounds they used to communicate, and to their facial expressions. I listened to them as individual people communicating and responding in individual ways. The more I listened, the more I knew them. The more I knew them, the better I could design learning activities they could access and be successful in.

The more I teach students of all ages and learning styles, the more I realize that the truths of listening and responding are the same for all. As teachers and learners and people, we can all improve the ways we listen and respond, and in doing so we further communication and increase in productivity towards our goals.

– Jill Frutkin