Picture children listening to a story. They’re sitting in a circle on the carpet listening, wide-eyed and mouth agape, to a storyteller in the middle of the circle. The children are fully focussed on the storyteller, soaking in their voice and absorbing the story. They are experiencing the full benefits of story listening.
Now, replace the children in that scene with adults. Go ahead and give them something to sit on and put that storyteller at the front of a room, maybe a big room. What does their listening look like? Have they lost themselves in the story? Where is their focus? Are they sneaking peeks at each other or checking their phones?
We hear stories all the time, from friends, family, colleagues, and strangers. Particularly in these times, the in-person story listening experience is rare and precious. Do you listen like a child? Do you give storytellers your full attention, eyes wide and mouth agape? Or are you only mostly there, only halfway receiving the gift of story?
Focus on the storyteller
In his biography of The Great Gatsby author F Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Turnbull describes the Fitzgerals as listener;
“Fitzgerald focused on you – even riveted on you – and if there was one thing you were sure of, it was that whatever you happened to be talking about was the most important matter in the world.”
I’m fascinated by the idea that someone who we remember for how he grabs our attention was someone who loved the experience of listening. He was a great audience and created great experiences for his audiences.
The beauty of Fitzgerald listening so well is two-fold. He is soaking up the story and its details. Maybe it’s for his own writing. Maybe it’s just for pleasure. Whatever his purpose, he’s in the moment. The other thing he’s doing is honoring the storyteller and their story. He’s holding space for them. He’s building trust. He’s showing respect. He’s connecting as a listener and he’s doing all this by sitting still and listening well.
If we listen to storytellers with all of our curiosity, all of our attention, all of our interest and if we can turn off our urge to share, tell, contribute, and to be seen and heard, then there are huge benefits to listening to other people’s stories that goes far beyond the content of their stories.
Life in another skin
I go through my life in my cis female body with a particular skin, eye, and hair color. I don’t know what it is to go through life male or nonbinary. I cannot know what it feels like to have a different skin color. I’ll never have those experiences and you can be sure I won’t in the future.
Whether we like it or not, you and I are missing out on a lot of experiences. Stories are the only way to learn about life in another skin.These stories can help us understand not just what the storyteller saw, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled but it can also help us learn what the events did to a person; their sense of self or safety or pride.
Think about optical illusions that require you to look differently in order to see images that you missed at first glance. In a sense we go through life thinking our first glances, our primary experiences, the way we felt or saw or experienced a thing is the way others do, too. But if we listen again, if we listen to how another person experienced an event, they give us an opportunity to experience it differently.
Once we understand what an experience does to a person and learn how their senses perceive the world, we can start to better understand how they feel and respond to it. Listening to stories isn’t a substitute for having life experiences, but it can give us an idea of what life is like for another person. This story listening benefit is an important step in cultivating our empathy for and connection with others.
Deep listening and the return
Deep listening isn’t satisfied with the shape of the story and a list of characters. Deep listening is listening for details and nuances. It means listening to understand the sense of the thing and not just a timeline or sequence of events. It means listening to the storyteller’s tone, the particular words they choose to describe an experience or emotion and thinking about what it means.
This deep listening means paying attention to not just the events of the story, but also to what comes after. This is what we can glean from things like word choice and tone and body language when we listen to storytellers. How was the storyteller transformed by their experience? Remember, when the journey ends, the hero must return home. They must take their changed selves and negotiate fitting into an old life.
We often focus on the journey and pay little attention to the return. Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage is a remarkable example of a story that focuses on the return and what it does to both the character and their environment. Click here to read my review. We often skip this part of a story. It’s exciting to hear about a great vacation, but how has it changed the way the storyteller experiences their everyday life? How has it changed the way they think about a particular part of the world or people?
Start the conversation
Resist the urge to respond to a story with a judgement or your own story. Thank your storyteller. Ask a question that will start a conversation that further honors the storyteller and their experience. Ask for details or how they felt about their experience. Ask them what they will do next or how the event changed their life, or not.
Ask questions that focus on developing a deeper understanding of the storyteller’s experience, not to put it in your own context. The “did it really happen that way” question isn’t going to start a conversation as much as it will lead to defensiveness or debate. Questions that will lead to a fruitful conversation will be much more along the lines of “what did that experience mean to you?” or “How did that experience impact you?”
These types of questions focus on the storyteller and their experience. Connection comes from a deep and sincere interest in the other. Show your interest by turning the story into a meaningful conversation about your storyteller’s experience and what the story means to them.
Honor the storyteller
Storytellers share something precious when they tell their stories. They make themselves vulnerable and open themselves up to rejection and judgement as much as praise and appreciation. Honor their gift by being a great listener.
Lean in and hold on to every word because you know each word is precious. Lose track of time and space. This is the kind of listening that leads to intense emotional experiences like falling in love or soul-healing truths.
You can practice engaged listening. Put down your phone – better yet, turn it off – face the speaker, look at the speaker, and clear your mind of other things. When we do this, we can move into the story and through the story with the storyteller. We can feel the story deeply.
Story listening is a powerful tool in antiracism work because when we listen to stories, we can learn, develop empathy, and see the world through other people’s perspectives. So go – listen to stories. Listen with engaged attention, follow up with attentive questions, and you will be amazed by what you can learn and the relationships you can form.