When I trained as a storyteller, one of the first things we were taught was how to listen.
It seemed an odd priority for a person whose intention is to learn how to perform a very public and speak-y art.
But the truth is stories only live in the listening space. A storyteller exists because of her listeners.
Our culture, meanwhile, is talk-biased. Think of debate teams and endless social media feeds. We laud a great orator, rarely do we praise someone as a fantastic listener. It may take a visit to a therapist for us to experience the life-changing validation of being deeply heard.
Very few of us are taught how to pay attention to someone as they speak. Mostly we listen while running an internal monologue in our heads.
The inside of our heads can be a noisy place in Western culture.
Learning to be quiet with our own thoughts is one thing, learning to be quiet with another person is a whole new threshold.
It’s next level mindfulness — it’s relational.
Miracles happen in an open listening space for both people. The teller feels the magic of being heard and understood. The listener can be touched by an element in the other’s story that resonates in a positive way. When we really listen, we are open. We find connection.
An Easy Listening Practice
I often ask people I work with to imagine that they are in a rowing boat, drifting downriver on a balmy summer’s day. They are invited to listen to their partner (the storyteller) in that easy, relaxed, no agenda way.
Release any tension in your body. Lean back, as far as possible — energetically this helps you to stay in your own space. Coming too far forward as we listen is de-centering. Make sure your feet are solidly on the ground.
The next thing is to allow the words you hear to simply wash over you. In other words, to not get hooked on anything you hear. The mind will try to busy itself by commenting, comparing or criticising but if you stay relaxed, it can’t sustain that. Just keep listening.
Set a timer. We are so unused to being listened to that we will often cut ourselves short after a minute or two. Five minutes is a good container. The only instruction is to keep speaking until time’s up.
Then swap over.
When both people have spoken, share your experience.
Listening 3.0 — Hearing Nature Speak
Lockdown reintroduced us to a new level of listening — to nature. As the cars and planes of our noisy big cities fell silent, we heard birdsong, wind and nocturnal animal calls in a way we hadn’t before.
That experience was so profound for me, I’ve spent recent months doing what I half-jokingly refer to as re-wilding myself. Volunteering on permaculture projects in south Europe has introduced me to a new way of listening. In the quiet listening space that we cultivate, nature speaks. It’s just a different kind of language.