Of all the skills you need as a Dungeon Master learning to listen is one of the most critical ones. You might get by just fine as it is, but when you’re running the game you attention can actually be all over the place. It’s really easy for a player to catch you off guard or for you to loose track of player conversations while you check your notes. While it’s not the worst thing a DM can do, your players certainly notice when you’re not paying attention.
How To Listen
This may sounds strange, since you listen to things all the time. Surely you’re already an expert. However, there is a difference between active listening and passive listening and it comes up in DnD quite often.
Active Listening is when you’re listening in order to understand. This is what you do when the group needs to make a decision and you need to be ready to act on what they’re saying.
Passive Listening is when you’re taking in what people are saying without interacting. This is what you do when the group is role playing amongst themselves.
All of the other “listening” you’re doing while looking at your notes, thinking about your next steps, or preparing for a monologue is not listening at all. It’s essentially ignoring the players and waiting for your chance to speak.
Now that we’ve given you some examples, it’s easy to see what good listening is. Focus on what your players are saying and really try to understand what they are communicating. Using either active or passive listening can be appropriate, but make sure you are actually listening.
But I’m the DM, I Can’t Pay Attention All the Time!
There will be times when you need to prepare, take notes, look things up, or buy time by asking players to take over active communication while you do other things. While this is a case where you won’t really be listening, the important distinction here is that it’s intentional and brief. If you need to focus on something else for a moment, do so, but don’t try to listen while doing something else. You’ll end up doing neither well.
When this happens, and it happens all the time, it’s okay to ask a player to repeat themselves. It’s okay to restate what you understood and ask it that’s correct. Don’t pretend you heard and understood your players if you didn’t.
While real multi-tasking doesn’t exist, the appearance of effective multitasking comes from actively focusing on tasks and deliberately switching between them. The better you are at moving your focus purposefully, the more effectively you can run a session while juggling many things at once.
Practice Makes Perfect
Listening is a skill, just like anything else. While a lot of what you do in DnD has some application in the rest of your life, nothing else will come as close to being as useful as being a better listener. Try and practice active and passive listening in your day to day life and bring these skills to your DnD game or vice versa.
When you don’t need to respond and just need to hear, you can practice your passive listening. Try to hold onto as much information as you can when someone is speaking and clear your mind of other distractions. At first it can seem hard, especially if your day to day life has you bouncing around a lot.
When you get an opportunity to reflect and actively participate in a conversation, practice your active listening. Rather than thinking about what you’re going to say while someone talks, instead try to hear everything they are saying and synthesize new understanding before you speak. In actuality many people who are storytellers struggle with this because they are focused on crafting a narrative in their own head.
If you struggle with this (as I often do), focus first on taking in all the elements of the information you’re receiving before you think about their implications. It’s easy to start getting pulled away into other thoughts when people are talking, especially if you’re really interested.
Listening Can Be Exhausting
The hardest part of listening is the amount of attention it takes. If you struggle with focus and attention span you might get worn out easily from really trying to listen. But the great thing about this is that really working on listening is a fantastic way to train your attention span. It’s like working out for your brain. It not only helps make you better at listening, but also at focusing for longer in other parts of your life.
If you find that you’re just realizing you’ve been a bad listener your whole life, don’t stress about it. You can get better, and DnD is a great place to practice it!
As a DM you’ll have a lot of opportunities to practice listening. If you get tired during a session, take a break. Let everyone get some pizza and go clear your head. If there’s too much to focus on, some quiet reflection can help you get organized and restore your focus before continuing.
Take it to Heart
No one wants to be bad at listening, but modern society is full of distractions. It’s harder now than ever to passively flex this key DM skill. Because of this though, you have ample opportunities to practice and get better over time.
As you get better at listening your game will improve! Your players will notice, and the skill might even bleed over to the rest of your life.