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The Art of Enlightened Listening: How Mastering the Other Side of the Story Sharing Coin Can Make You a Better Person

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I’m a storyteller. I’m on this earth to heal the world with stories, whether through the ones I write and tell or the ones I help other people write and tell. We are story-making and story-telling machines. In fact, science has shown that we’re wired for stories, and we need stories to survive. It’s how we create meaning in the world.

Honestly, though, I prefer “story sharing” over “storytelling.” Storytelling implies a one-way transmission with a passive receiver on the other end. Story sharing requires connection. It says: I want to tell you about my experience. I want to be understood and seen. To share a story—a piece of ourselves and our lives—requires vulnerability. (I envision the sharer standing before the listener, arms outreached, offering a gift.)

As listeners, we can unwittingly trample on that vulnerability and send messages that are detrimental to the sharer’s spirit and to any possible meaningful connection with that person. The greatest gift we can give ourselves and others is to get quiet, listen, and create a space for something new.

This notion of quiet listening is not novel, yet it is difficult to master, as the lack of story listening skills shows up in many ways, such as interrupting, interjecting, and parallel conversing.

1. Interrupting

As kids, we were taught to view interrupting as socially rude, so most of us understand why cutting someone off in conversation is not appropriate. Interrupting oftentimes arises from a sense of entitlement. For example, studies have shown that women are interrupted more than men (and usually by men). 

Granted, there are times when interrupting can be beneficial, however, in the realm of story sharing, doing so truncates the beneficial energetic flow that occurs between two people when they’re involved in a story sharing endeavor. 

How it’s received: Our perception is better, and the story sharer is unimportant.

2. Interjecting

Interjecting comes in the form of advice giving or providing a positive spin, and many people believe they’re doing a good deed by offering solutions or helping the other person “look on the bright side.”

How it’s received: We want to be in a power position or we’re imposing toxic positivity, and either way, the person feels cut off, silenced, and diminished.

3. Parallel Conversing

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an offender of this one. In the moment, I’m listening, enjoying the other person’s story. Then, it reminds me of a story from my life, which compels me to share it right on the heels of theirs. What feels like an attempt to show likeness diminishes the sharer’s experience and makes it about me. I cringe when I catch myself doing this.

How it’s received: We’re one-upping, and it overshadows and negates the sharer.

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

What to do instead

The first step to improving our story listening behaviors is to acknowledge our communication habits. Step back, and take an observer’s view of your behavior during conversations. If you notice yourself interrupting, interjecting, or parallel conversing, ask yourself the following questions.

Interrupters: Am I concerned that I might forget my thought or idea, that the conversation will move forward and I’ll miss my opportunity? Am I attempting to prove them wrong? Do I feel a sense of entitlement? Am I attempting to let the sharer know we’re of the same mind, that they’re not alone?

Whether you’re in a meeting or having a conversation with a friend or family member, you can always circle back later in an email, a phone call, or a follow-up conversation.

Interjectors: Why do I feel the need to offer unsolicited advice? Do I assume that everyone experiences life as I do? Do I believe every person’s solution to every problem should resemble mine? Do I feel a sense of superiority over this person? Do I want this person to stop “venting” or “complaining?”

If the person asks for your advice, still resist. Providing advice, opinion, or insight changes the dynamic between us from an equal exchange to a hierarchical exchange wherein one person assumes a higher position. There is nothing wrong with this, but to work and feel best, it needs to be consensual. Instead, ask questions. A simple “I’m sorry that happened. What are you going to do?” can go a long way.

Parallel conversers: How do I want to connect with this person? Why am I not able to allow silence? Why am I not able to give them the spotlight? How will sharing my story enhance our interaction? Is there another way or time I can share my experience?

When someone shares a story with you, whether it’s a problem, a funny scenario, or an exciting experience, stop for a moment, and say, “That was a great story. Thanks for sharing it.” Or, “That sounds… (incredible, scary, exciting). What was that like for you?” Or, “I’m glad you made it through that,” “I’m happy you were able to…” After you’ve acknowledged their experience, you can say, “I had something similar happen to me once. Do you mind if I tell you that story?”

Understand that we’ve all had vastly different experiences—even when growing up in the same family, under the same roof—because we process life differently, depending on our internal chemistry, our wiring, and our age and developmental evolution at the time life-shaping events occurred. 

Turn the mirror onto yourself. Being a good story listener is oftentimes more challenging than being a good story sharer because to be a good story listener, we need to have a certain level of self-awareness and self-love.

When we possess these qualities, we can be at peace with being who and what we are in any given moment. In turn, we’re able to accept others in the same way without feeling the need to impose ourselves, assume a superior status, or control their experience. We can get quiet and listen.

To heal the world with stories, our careful and thoughtful handling of other people’s experiences is crucial. Stories are powerful tools to elicit human connection. 

The way we respond to the stories of others can profoundly impact the way they feel and move in the world, and it can do the same for us. When we make room for other people’s experiences, we create space for acceptance, love, and compassion. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, CEO, solopreneur, friend, sibling, or mentor, learning to simply be a witness to others’ story will help us evolve as individuals and as a species. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart…” When we do this, we can transform the world.

Have you ever told a story and dealt with an interjector, interrupter, or parallel converser? If so, please share your experiences below!

Johnnie Mazzocco is a writer, book coach, and speaker, and the creator of the Writing Through the Body™ method. She also teaches college students about pop culture and academic argumentation at Portland State University and technical writing and communication at Washington State University. Her work has appeared in So to Speakroofbeam, and Narrative Northeast, among others. Her feature length screenplay, Found Objects, was a semi-finalist at the 2011 Moondance Film Festival, and her short stories, “What I Want” and “Music Theory” were finalists at the festival in 2010. When she’s not snowshoeing the beautiful Oregon backcountry, hiking to a waterfall, or dancing, you’ll find Johnnie at home with a book or her most recent Netflix binge, getting comfy with Iris, her feline familiar.

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