What Good Is a Story If No One is Listening?

Is it just me, or is our world is going out of its way to show off its ugliness these days?  Even when you try not look, it’s yelling at your back.  The age old horrible stories are bubbling to the surface and blasting us all with a scalding steam made all the more intense by our long efforts to keep them bottled up down below.

Okay, I hear youYou’re there.  And okay, I’m here, and I’m making my shameful confession:  I, a so-called storyteller and lover of tales, am a horrible listener.

There are so many things I would rather do than listen.  I want to fix.  To act.  To solve the problem.  To make it go away.  To move on.

If I can’t, I don’t want to hear about it.  I don’t want to feel helpless.  I don’t want to feel unresolved pain.  I don’t want to feel impotent rage.

For someone who claims to value stories, there are so many of them I’d rather not hear.

What is wrong with me?

I’m no one really, a small person with a small life, so for me this starts small, in my home, with my kids.  You know that thing, where they get into a fight and you hear them screaming at each other and it reaches a level that you can no longer ignore so you go up the stairs and ask what has happened and the second they say, “I was playing with this and he took it!” you launch a lecture on taking turns and pass a quick judgment on who will get the first turn and in the end both kids are unsatisfied and their anger has now turned against you? (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.)

Here’s the thing: it is true that their argument is petty.  It is true that they need to take turns.  It is true that they need to stop overreacting and stop being selfish and stop making our house an unpleasant place with their yelling.  But am I really helping?  In my calmer moments I realize that I could choose to stay out of it altogether and give them the freedom to resolve their problems without an authority involved.  I could turn away the tattler and close my ears to the noise.  That’s teaching them something constructive and I do it whenever I can.  It’s also just not possible sometimes.  Things escalate, they get out of hand.  So if I’m going to get involved, then I have to make the most of my involvement.  Do I want to teach them about resolving conflict appropriately?  Refusing to listen to them and rushing to judgment is probably not doing the trick.

I recently read this article by Doug Lipman about story listening, and it really blew my mind.  In it, Lipman recounts the supposedly true story of a rabbi who is resolving a dispute between two villagers.  After carefully listening to each villager, asking many questions, and not letting either one finish until he has nothing left to add, the rabbi comes to a quick resolution which satisfies them both.  Later, an observer asks him why he let them talk so long when he obviously knew the solution all along.  “The rabbi said, ‘If I had not listened to each one’s full story, each would have resented my decision. It wasn’t my judgment that solved the problem. What solved it was listening to their entire stories.’”



Imagine how much better things would be if I let my kids tell their full stories.  If I didn’t rush them, interrupt them, get irritated by the insane amount of detail they want to provide or the over-the-top emotions that come along with it.  Imagine if I asked them to tell me what was going on and really listened.  Imagine if I showed them that their point of view matters to me and that I want to feel what they feel.

Imagine how much better things would be if we let everyone tell their full stories.  If we didn’t smile distantly and back away, immediately jump in with our own defensiveness or devil’s advocacy, get irritated by the insane amount of detail they want to provide or the over-the-top emotions that come along with it.

Imagine if we asked for people’s stories, and we really wanted them to answer.  Imagine if we listened and didn’t try to fix their lives.  Imagine if we let the story lie there, let the pain be raw, let the injustice rankle, let the anger burn us to the core, and just left it there, existing, being a real thing.

For just short time, we would be actually sharing someone else’s life.  Through the power of story, we would get it for just a minute.

And then it would be gone.  We would be back inside ourselves and bound by our own experiences, but we would never be able to forget the connection of that one moment.  And that could be repeated.  And repeated.  And repeated.  Until being connected felt normal and being isolated no longer fit us.

I know you want that.  I know I want that.  I know it’s the getting at it that’s so terribly hard.

How do you encourage people to tell you their stories?  One blogger suggests that we get rid of asking strangers “What do you do?” and start asking them “What is your story?”  I like the sentiment, but I can’t help feeling that people would be put off by such an enormous question on a first meeting.  (The post makes for great reading, though, just for the lovely comments answering the question.) So how do we ask?

Where are you from?
What brought you here?
Are you happy you came?

I don’t think it matters what question you use.  It only matters how much attention you pay to the answer.  People are dying to be understood; they want their stories known. They may not know how to tell them. The certainly may not know how to tell them in an interesting way or a concise way or a way that is palatable to us, but if we listen and keep asking and then listen some more, we’ll see the storyline begin to emerge, and maybe we’ll be surprised at how captivating it is.

Or maybe we won’t.  Maybe we’ll be bored.  Maybe it will make us mad.  Maybe it will make us late.

Who cares? We’ll have shown that stranger (or neighbor or co-worker or friend or family member or postal worker or waitress) that their life matters to us.  We’ll have shown them that their story is worthy of being told.

Seriously, what were we going to do today that was more important than that?


P.S.  If you aren’t sure where to start, listen to some stories that people have recorded for you.  Remember I told you about the Life Stories Project?  Check out these ones from African-American Hoosiers.  Most of them are only 4 or 5 minutes long.  And don’t miss this one, even though it’s a little longer.  This is MY city.  These are MY people.  Listening is the least I can do.




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