I slipped into the last empty seat in the session on “Listening Dialogues” at the Creative Problem Solving Institute Conference (CPSI 2016). I recognized the woman sitting next to me in the circle as someone I’d seen around the conference and wanted to meet. She gave me a warm, welcoming smile, and I knew I’d made the right choice to join this session.
That morning I’d been feeling a little harried, as I packed to return home early for my son’s graduation, and conflicted about whether I had time to attend a session before my flight. Also I was uncertain about which session to join. The title intrigued me, but it also scared me.
I’ve never been a good listener. Growing up in a large, loud family, I learned to tune out commotion around me and tended to withdraw to imaginary play. As an adult, I’ve become more social, but I find myself getting so excited when I talk to people that I interrupt way too much as I ask questions and share my thoughts, ideas, and stories. In business meetings or presentations that are boring, my mind wanders to my TO DO list or some more intriguing thought or idea I’m exploring. If the topic is stimulating, my mind races with how I might use the information and soon I’m not listening. My family will attest that multi-tasking further undermines my listening effectiveness.
After an opening activity, we broke into pairs and took turns listening to our partners share a “life story” for eight minutes. While listening, we could not interrupt, ask questions, or react. We just listened attentively for eight minutes—and the time flew. My partner, the warm-smiling woman next to me, wove the twists and turns of her career and personal life into an intriguing tale. It was a gift to get to know her in this way. When it was my turn, I received my second gift: the experience of having someone listen to me with empathy, openness, and undivided attention.
Since attending this session, I have experimented with the exercise of asking colleagues to tell me their life story during networking meetings, then listening without interruption for several minutes. While I typically enjoy sharing and seeking stories when networking, the discipline of listening attentively for several minutes has yielded even greater rewards.
Listening in Storytelling
A few weeks ago, I listened to Sally Fox’s Vital Presence Podcast interview with veteran storyteller, Doug Lipman, in which he illuminated the power of listening. Based on a 40-year career as a master storyteller and pioneering work in business storytelling, his wisdom and guidance about how to “grow your stories” reinforced what I learned in my CPSI listening experience.
Lipman’s approach to story creation involves starting with the “seed of a story” (a memory or an idea), then focusing on the interaction between the listener and the teller to bring it to life. Rather than memorize, recite, act, or present, the storyteller’s job is to stimulate the listener to imagine. The listener provides the sunlight that helps the seed grow. Because we have all been trained to rebut or analyze what we hear, being a “helping listener” means listening for the sake of the teller—without interrupting or without taking control of the agenda. Lipman asserts that storytellers need story buddies to “listen with delight, give appreciations, and say what was confusing.” To develop a repertoire of stories for our life or work, we need a lot of listeners.
Arriving at similar insights, the “Listening Dialogues” leaders, Jennifer Quarrie and Doug Reid came at listening from a different approach. They had conducted eight 90-minute listening dialogue sessions in which they explored key themes related to effective listening: connection, empathy, understanding, deferring judgment, presence, mindfulness, intention, and compassion. In the session, they shared theories and insights about different types of listening, including:
- Empathic Listening—seeing through another person’s eyes
- Generous Listening—allowing a person to finish a thought before engaging
- Transformative Listening—both teller and listener are changed
Whether listening to friends, loved ones, employees, consumers, or customers, “listening with delight” can transform you. Anyone who knows me will appreciate that my journey into effective listening is just beginning. But I invite you to explore the gifts of transformative listening.
The “Listening Dialogues” session closed with a song/chant by Ram Dass:
- Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song. [repeat three times]
- I will never forsake you. I will never forget you. [repeat]
- Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song.