Learning to listen

The family was in crisis.

A young mother in critical condition. Two small children. Family gathered around her bed, praying for her. Life on the line. Hearts on the line.

As I watched this unfold before me and listened to family members share their stories and fears, I couldn’t help but remember my own story from almost two decades before of when it was my sister in critical condition, with my nephews as the small children, and my family gathered around her bed.

And as I felt the echo of my story rise up inside of me, with an urge to share it with this family, I felt another prompting voice saying, “This is not about you. This is their story, not yours. Yes, it’s very similar, but it’s not the same. Attend to them and their story. Don’t indulge yourself and your story. Don’t push yourself on them. Let them push themselves on you. Listen to them.

It happens so frequently and in so many ways. We find ourselves hearing echoes of our own stories when others are telling theirs, and we give in to the urge to force our stories on to them instead of attending to theirs and why they’re telling it to us.

A colleague is talking about a trip to a place I’ve been, and I launch into a telling of my story of my own adventures during the slightest gap in their telling, because I just can’t help telling my story.

A friend is talking about his favorite sports team and their incredible performance in their last game, and I chime in with my observations about the game and the even better performance of my favorite team several years ago.

A family member is talking about feeling ill, and I start talking about my own aches and pains, instead of attending to theirs.

I could go on with example after example of the ways I quickly move from listening to someone else tell their story to interrupting them and intruding my own story on to them.

It happens in business meetings. It happens in presidential debates. It happens at dinner. It happens on the playground.

Stories collide.

So, what do we do about it?

1. Count how often you interrupt others in a given day. Don’t worry about how often they interrupt you. It’s not a competition, so don’t get drawn into competing. But recognize how often you interject instead of listening and consciously try to reduce the number.

2. Save your story. Yes, you’ve got a great story. It means a lot to you because it’s yours. And because it means a lot to you, there’s a better time and place to tell it. Don’t just cram it into a conversation where it doesn’t belong. Respect your own story by giving it its own context. Now, it’s possible that it might fit well in the context you’re in — so many times the stories other people tell help us make sense of our own stories — but it often requires significant listening first.

3. Pay attention to the stories of others. When they’re talking, it’s their turn. So listen. Really listen. Think of questions to ask instead of stories to tell. Consider why this story is being told and what it reveals about the teller. Draw out details, feelings, meanings.

When we talk, we say things we already know. But when we listen, we just might learn something new and hear a story that just might bring new shape and meaning to the stories of our own lives.

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