Tell Me a Story
On the Mindfulness of Listening
Listening is such a simple thing. How hard can it be?
But we all know that listening is harder than it appears, because listening means we have to shut up. And good listening means not just shutting up but also not using someone’s moments of speech as a time to plan counter-arguments.
Real listening happens nine hours into a car trip, after you’ve exhausted the common topics and celebrity gossip and a silence settles. For miles. Which can feel weird. And then you pass a broken down Quonset hut and your spouse/friend/acquaintance/ride share starts in on early memory of a fire at her parent’s farm, and how all the kids huddled in blankets watching the barn in flame and hearing the gas tanks in the tractors explode one after the other and how the firemen pumped water from a pond into a little pool they created and then onto the barn. And how the whole thing left her feeling sad and, well, bereft.
It had been a kind of turning point, she says, now that she thinks about it. And then she collects memories of what was different with her family after that and how it was different. She has very specific points.
And you have not said a word. Because the fire story had and entirely engulfed you as well. You were there—as she told her story—shivering on the side and hearing the pop of gas tanks.
Most listening is not that dramatic. But sometimes it is.
We’re talking about how to listen in our social media marketing class. How to listen to the audiences and communities we want to interact with. We want to hear the concerns and the jargon and the voices and the rhythm of those voices.
It occurs to me that we listen in stages. Or perhaps we hear—or comprehend—in stages. When new to a community, we hear the words and perhaps can make out only the broad outlines of the bigger story. The more we listen, the more we hear specificities and nuance The more we listen, the more stories we hear the emotion and motivations that bind a community together.
Good listening means sitting with and through the stages so that we burrow into understanding the people of the community. Our best friends are often great listeners because they sat through the bursts of story that followed silences.
Most of us have little time for listening.
Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston