Listening

Lesson One:  Listen. Listen actively. Listen deeply.

so cute but they eat my chard

It’s so obvious.  Of course.  As Richard Kearney says, “It take two to story” –the listener being as important as the teller.  Students encounter this dance, this tension in their theory classes–the role of reader, audience, viewer.  But that’s once the “story” has been created.  There’s also the role of listening in story creation itself.   Listening before telling.  Listening and telling.  Telling then listening. Consultants advising nonprofits and entrepreneurs on ROI suggest listening in (via social media) before jumping in. When you click on the url for the Center for Digital Storytelling, you’re greeted with:

Listening wraps itself around the entire process of story-making and sharing. But deep listening?  Listening that has the power to transform us?  It isn’t as easy as we like to think.  It takes time (yes, I’m still advocating the slow-blogging sort of engagement), time and the willingness to recognize and confront our own biases and expectations about the teller, the tale, and ourselves.  We have to recognize the filters of culture, belief, experience, values. To learn to listen, we have to come into contact with stories far different from our own.  We have to practice to become listening literate– to understand the impact of tone, gesture, silence, audience, language (spoken and not), image, metaphor and other parts of the story moment.  We have to be self-aware but not self-consumed.

shoppinginny  But there’s a lot getting in our way.

I’ve been listening in and participating peripherally in online communities ranging  from Vermont farmers and orchardists to the remarkable learning experiment, #ds106.  Listening is problematic, challenging.  In many (most?) classrooms teachers only sort of listen to students, students kind of listen to teachers and to one another–everything is so tuned to a clock, to a schedule.  Listening of course demands much of us that we don’t seem to have the time or inclination to give.  And, I suspect, because we do not listen well, we contribute to the spinning around and around of the same conversations about education and communities, the same points being made, the same the same the same.  There’s the scrim of our own expectations to contend with, behind which we often hide without noticing the scrim at all.  We hear what we expect to hear, what we want to hear.   And then there’s the problem of interpretation. Look at mainstream media and Occupy Wall Street.  Did the media even begin to listen–to listen well– to what the protestors were actually saying? And how about retention?  How do we hold onto the things we hear?  Mostly we don’t. Researchers have found that our normal listening efficiency falls between an abysmal 11% and 15 % due to selective exposure (we only tune in to what we want to hear), selective retention and selective perception (Ayre, Clough & Norris  Facilitating Community Change).

So the first thing I do with communities is focus on listening and listeners through a series of creative exercises. We might bring objects that represent something we care deeply about in community and have everyone try to anticipate what those objects mean.  We might play with our associations with language and image.  We might record ourselves. We might play with Soundcloud and ambient sound stories. We might play pass-the-metaphor and try out a terrific co-drawing exercise Nancy White taught me, one she learned from Johnnie Moore.  And then we tell stories.  And we listen more deeply than we have listened in a long, long time.  The immediate impact is often astonishing.  When we feel listened to, heard, we feel valued and trusted and we begin to trust and feel a sense of belonging and are more apt to give in return, to participate, to work towards better worlds.  When we listen deeply, we feel empathy and in turn open our hearts and minds.

Here’s more of what I have learned about listening– an excerpt about listening and community storytelling from “Re-Weaving the Community, Creating the Future: Storytelling at the Heart and Soul of Healthy Communities”:


Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
–Winston Churchill

During a recent storytelling training, the story-sharer sat among a group of eager volunteers learning to conduct story interviews.[i] The older man tipped back in his chair and slowly moved into his story of coming to the valley as a boy, how those early years had shaped his love for the woods, the mountains, the wide wild spaces of the valley. His story was simple, straightforward. It was the telling that drew them in: his voice, his facial expressions and his body language radiated a deep affection for his town and its people; his sense of humor, that warmed up as he grew at ease, invited them into his story. The volunteers were riveted. And the more they leaned forward to listen, responsively, to the twists of his tale, the more he seemed to light up and remember. The trainees were so caught up with the story and the teller that they forgot they were there to practice interviewing techniques.

After the story-sharer left, one of the volunteers exclaimed that she had a confession. She had always dismissed the man as someone with hardened, inflexible views at the opposite side of the political spectrum, but now, after sitting with him and hearing his story unfurl, she would never shut him out again. He loved this valley and cared for its future as much as she did. She still disagreed with him, but now she could talk with him across that gap and withhold judgment. Furthermore, she would listen more carefully in general. Here, in his presence, sitting in a circle of fellow listeners, she learned two of in-person storytelling’s greatest lessons: how it leads to both self-understanding and to empathy.

Somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself. –Henry Miller

She learned that we listen through the scrim of our own experience. The Center for Narrative Studies calls listening “a dynamic of expectancy”;[ii] old stories we’ve heard and our own stories become a filter through which we hear the new. Maxine Greene says that in our dealings with one another we must remember “that each of us achieved contact with the world from a particular vantage point, in terms of a particular biography. All this underlies our present perspective and affects the way we look at things and talk about things and structure our realities.”[iii] If we listen with our own subjectivity acknowledged—something that becomes particularly possible when we are in each other’s presencewe will break through to a ‘receptive listening space’ where we come face to face with our own patterns of thinking and believing and communicating.[iv] We will then accept what we have heard; we will feel how others’ stories brushing up against our own build bridges that will move us past prior assumptions, past fear and distrust.

That training group learned that listening, really listening, builds empathy and a movement toward trust,[v] but it can also bring surprise. Once we open ourselves to another’s story, we allow for the possibility that “however certain our expectation, the moment foreseen may be unexpected when it arrives.”[vi] Even if we’ve heard the story, know the teller or the place, hearing it within an intentional gathering brings things into new focus, deepening our understanding. There’s something about being out of the comfort of our own surroundings or in the presence of people with whom we do not ordinarily tell stories, of hearing our own voice and experiencing our stories being received. We never know when we might just save a bus route. We never know when we might discover common ground or be confronted by our own assumptions. We never know when we’ll learn a new truth. By pulling a single experience from the stream of life, storytelling gives us a chance to turn it over and over in our hands, and have it teach us again and differently.

“We don’t need more public hearings. We need much more public listening, in processes where we come together and commit to staying together long enough to discover those ideas and issues that are significant to each of us.” –Margaret Wheatley[vii]

During a story-circle in Maine a new resident of the small, seacoast town told a story about how his neighbor, without being asked, kept a close watch on his house when the newcomer was away. The telling of the story—and the naming of his wonder and delight in the presence of this neighborliness, so palpable during the sharing—brought home to the longtime residents sitting in that circle a local trait they had taken for granted. Then something else happened; they spent the next several minutes marveling over other instances of neighborliness that each had experienced. In so doing, they connected with each other and named what they valued while inviting the newcomer deeper into the community. Instead of checking off “neighborliness” on a values survey and moving on, in an interactive story circle the storyteller receives immediate feedback from his listeners’ body language, facial expressions and verbal response. He may be asked to explain, provide additional clarifying detail to the story—“what exactly makes this a neighborly community in your experience.”

More than a general concept, neighborliness was named by the Maine storyteller and his listeners as a particular kind of interaction, something to be fostered in the future by efforts to encourage everyday neighbor-to-neighbor caring, such as block parties, clean-up days and online community gathering spots like Front Porch Forum.[viii] Specifying in detail a universal value as it is actually experienced by residents will help a town to recognize and tend the value. Doing so in a group setting builds the good will and spirit necessary for people to invest the time and effort into future participation; to nurturing or protecting that value.

Having a place named and described through someone’s experience in it secures the name for us and connects us to that place. As Terry Tempest Williams tells us, “If we don’t know the names of things, if we don’t know bighorn antelope, if we don’t know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don’t know sage, pinyon, juniper, then …we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.”[ix] Naming ensures our sense of belonging to the place, and prepares us to shoulder responsibility for its safe-keeping. Good storytelling is a process of naming that moves us past generalities, past the first thing we think of, the dull “malling” of language and image and insight.

The Maine story circle also illustrates how stories beget stories—when we hear someone’s tale, we are reminded of our own, and we in turn offer our story. The newcomer’s tale of neighborliness prompted stories from his listeners and theirs led him to discover a new story—someone remarking that the town clock winder showed real community spirit led the newcomer the next week to collect the story of that clock tender, a digital story shared several weeks later at a community wide story sharing event. The new resident’s sense of belonging increased, as did the scope of his participation. The viral impact of group storytelling—story leading to story—pieces together a mosaic of specific community assets as well as areas under threat or needing developing—as actually experienced. Being in that slow, relaxed, congenial space of group storytelling gives townspeople the time to reflect rather than to react, to reacquaint themselves with each other and what matters, and begin to look to the future with shared anticipation.

We must come into contact with views other than our own or we become petrified, both fearful and fossilized. As we lean in to listen, we extend our capacity to encounter difference without being threatened by it. We begin to recognize others as not all that different from ourselves. We do not remain indifferent to those who share their story with us[x]—empathy is possible, so we are willing to risk the vulnerability of telling our own stories. We move past simple platitudes of position into the deeper complexities of context, cause, and connection. We learn to enjoy one another. We begin the journey to where we welcome what Vera John-Steiner calls “a shared language, the pleasures and risks of honest dialogue, and the search for a common ground.”[xi]

The challenge is increasing and deepening trust by engaging directly with others to create culture that works for all of us.[xii]
–Frances Moore Lappé

In listening to and telling stories, we are learning to understand the grammar of connection. When we sit together, we have the story, the teller and the telling to learn from. We respond as much to the language, the tone and rise and fall of the voice, the body language as to the words and details chosen, the scenes narrated, the arc of the story. When we listen intently, with humor and empathy, our focus shifts from what separates us to what unites us. We begin to understand why things are the way they are, and grow able to thrive on what a recent study found necessary to a healthy rural community: “both consent and dissent, and both trust and distrust.”[xiii] Community storytelling, focused as much on listening as on telling, gives us unparalleled views into our own hearts and bridges to the hearts of others. Only then will we break through our own walls. Only then will we trust. Only then will we engage with potentially contentious issues.

A great story is never told once; it is shared again and again. If your community members share great stories about their involvement in the community, the stories will travel far and wide and encourage new and unknown people to dip their feet into your waters. –Jono Bacon[xiv]

[i] See Appendix for summary of story interviews.

[ii] The Center for Narrative Studies, “Story as the Shape of Our Listening” Key Writings: http://www.storywise.com/Key_Writings/Key_Writings-Listening.htm.

[iii] Greene, Landscapes of Learning, 2.

[iv] The Center for Narrative Studies, “Story as the Shape of Our Listening” Key Writings: http://www.storywise.com/Key_Writings/Key_Writings-Listening.htm.

[v] Kearney, On Stories, 62-63.

[vi] T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harvest Books, 1964)

[vii] Wheatley, Finding Our Way, 53.

[viii] From Front Porch Forum’s website: http://www.frontporchforum.com/ “Our mission is to help neighbors connect and foster community within the neighborhood. Common sense and a growing body of research tell us that well-connected neighborhoods are friendlier places to live, with less crime, healthier residents, higher property values, and better service from local government and public utilities.”

[ix] Qtd in Beatley Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age,11.

[x] John Doe, Speak into the Mirror, A Story of Linguistic Anthropology, Chapter 13 (U of America P, 1998) http://www.uwm.edu/~wash/mirror13.htm

[xi] Vera John-Steiner, Creative Collaborations (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 204.

[xii] Frances Moore Lappe, Getting a Grip: Creativity and Courage In a World Gone Mad, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008) 87.

[xiii] Marquart-Pyatt and Petrzelka, “Trust, the Democratic Process, and Involvement in a Rural Community” 271.

[xiv] Jono Bacon, The Art of Community (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2009) 172.

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