There is a wonderful program called This I Believe, in which various people, some well-known and most everyday, wrote and read essays on their core beliefs. These ranged from forgiveness to science to faith and more. I would listen to these essays on NPR, transfixed. I was moved to write my own This I Believe essay; I ended up writing more than one, as I found I have several core beliefs. But I kept coming back to the same thing.
I believe in listening. When asked to define myself, I often start with, “I am a listener.”
This may seem like an odd thing for a storyteller to say, after all, my craft requires people to listen to me, do I have to listen to them? Yes. When you think about it, storytelling starts with listening. Without a listener, the storyteller, no matter how superb, is talking to the wind. The wind may be an excellent listener, however because storytelling is an experience based on relationships, and most of us don’t have two-way relationships with the wind, we need active and engaged listeners. Storytellers listen to their audiences while they tell their stories and shape the tale to meet the needs of the audience. It’s a relationship, a dance, not just a rote performance.
Storytellers who listen to the world around them in their daily lives can craft stories that are more readily recognizable, where the audience can find themselves and their own story with more ease. These stories, where the audience doesn’t have to work as hard, give the storyteller a way to reach their listeners and connect with them more deeply, thus creating a more satisfying experience to all. We’re more likely to remember a story where we found ourselves, in some way, than a story we found completely alien. We’re all Luke Skywalker, Little Red Riding Hood and The Big Bad Wolf, after all.
But there’s more to it than that. We all need to be listeners to the world. When we listen intently to those around us, we have a much better chance of understanding them. We also model for them the way we want to be listened to. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you were interrupted constantly? Where that person kept diverting the conversation to themselves? Where your experiences were only launching pads to their own stories? We have a chronic listening deficit in the western world (maybe globally, I don’t know). We are taught from a very young age that if we shut up and listen we’re passive, giving up the advantage, that we won’t gain anything from the interaction. I disagree. By listening to those around me, by giving those with the greatest need to talk a chance to be heard, I have forged deep and meaningful relationships, helped people find their place in the world and ultimately had opportunities to express my own ideas in a wider range of forums than I would have otherwise.
Listening is the base of every workshop I teach; it’s inevitably the hardest part for participants. Being still and listening to others is harder than standing up and telling a story, harder than finding a new company vision, harder than working through your own life for your next story. Without listening, without being listened to and listening to others carefully, all of these tasks become much more challenging.
We can learn to be better listeners, it’s a skill like any other.
Next time you’re talking to someone you love, just listen to them. Don’t interrupt with a question or your opinion, just pay attention and listen. Wait until they wind down before you praise, ask or empathize. You may learn something you never knew.
Try sometime just letting the interrupter talk. Listen to them. You may find they wind down after a while and become your ally because you are the person who took the time to hear them.
Listen to those whose views you oppose. You may find they have the same basic concerns that you do. They love their families, care about their communities and want to be happy just as much as you do. By listening to them you may teach them that the enemy isn’t so frightening after all. If you can extend them that kindness maybe they can extend it back to you.
Leaders need to be great listeners. They need to remember that everyone in their organization has their own measure of wisdom as well as opinion. By listening to them you may learn things you never knew about process, engagement, success or failure and potential improvement. But you need to be willing to listen.
It’s not easy. We want to share our own stories and have our own voice. You will have that chance, but if you can listen, you may learn more about the world and yourself than you ever expected.
(c)2011 Laura S. Packer