Happy 4th of July everyone!
Today I’m going to continue our deeper look at listening by going over the details of hearing someone’s story.

(Check out my last post: Listen up, for the brief instructions of how to listen well)

Remember that our goal for listening is to reach the point where we understand the other person, and understanding the other person is defined as when they believe and communicate that we understand them (not when we think we understand them).

Let’s focus on the story. We process our experiences by sharing them with others as stories. We love to share our own stories. We enjoy hearing other people’s stories if they are funny, entertaining, moving, or have specific details in common with ours. We don’t usually enjoy hearing stories that contain details that we find difficult to integrate with our own stories, but those are the stories that help us learn, grow, mature, and gain wisdom.

There are 5 parts to every story.

  1. Sensory Data – Telling a story usually starts by sharing what we experienced with our senses.
    “The other day I saw…”
    “You’ll never guess what he said!”
    “I read this article about…”
    “I walked outside yesterday and it smelled awful!”
    “We found the most delicious restaurant for our anniversary.”
    “We’re supposed to be social distancing, but the attendant reached right out and put his hand on my arm!”
    As you listen to a story try to hear what they experienced through all 5 senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Use Who, What, How, When, and Where questions to fill in any missing information.
  2. Thoughts – The sensory data of our experiences produce thoughts as we process the data. Take the last example from point 1.
    “We’re supposed to be social distancing, but the attendant reached right out and put his hand on my arm!”
    The sensory data is the feel of the attendants touch, and the thought is “We’re supposed to be social distancing”. Thoughts can include questions, observations, and conclusions based on the sensory data.
  3. Emotions – The feelings provoked by an experience can be communicated in the story, but they are often left up to the listener to infer based on the sensory data, thoughts, and non-verbals like body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Back to our social distancing example: If I’m sharing this story with you and my tone of voice gets louder and more shrill as I say the attendant touched me, you might infer that I am outraged by the attendant’s disregard for my health and safety. If I add some adjectives like “the stupid attendant reached right out and put his grimy hand right on my arm”, you might infer that I feel contempt toward the attendant.
    Name those emotions in your mind as you listen to the story. If the story teller doesn’t use any feeling words to identify their own feelings, and you are unsure of how they might be feeling, then practice empathy by asking yourself “If I was in this experience, how would I be feeling?”
    Check your accuracy by using the feeling word to show you are listening, like this: when the person has shared all they have to share about the story, say “Wow! You’re really angry that he just ignored your health and safety like that!” The story teller will either confirm or correct you with a “Yes! And I’m still angry!” or “I’m not really angry with him, I guess I just don’t understand how he could ignore social distancing like that.” If you get corrected, no big deal, that’s part of reaching understanding. Just try again with the new information they provided you. “Oh, you’re confused about why he didn’t pay better attention.” “Yeah, like, didn’t the managers do any training or anything? (< thought/question produced by the experience)
  4. Actions – Actions have 3 categories: past, present, and future. In our example, we already have the past actions of the attendant (attendant touched the story teller). We don’t yet know the past actions of the story teller. We could fill in that missing information by asking something like, “What did you do/say?” “I was like, ‘uh, social distancing man’, and took a step away from him. Then he took it off real quick and said he was sorry.” Here is an example of present and future actions in this situation: “There’s a survey on the receipt, so I kept it (present action), and I’m going to fill it out and say they should train their employees more for social distancing (future action).”
    Listen for past, present, and future actions by all the players in the story, and ask questions to fill in any missing actions.
  5. Wants – What we want as a result of our experiences is where our stories get complicated, and also where we have the opportunity to gain the deepest understanding. Wants have 3 categories in an experience: what the story teller wants for themselves, for others involved, and for others indirectly affected. In our social distancing example, the story teller wanted the attendant to stop touching them. That desire has been fulfilled. The story teller wants the attendant (other involved) to receive more training, and wants the attendant’s managers (others indirectly affected) to provide more training. Story teller also wants future customers (others indirectly affected) to not be touched by attendants.
    If you are unsure of what the story teller wants from the situation, that might be because they don’t yet know!
    Check your understanding, and simultaneously communicate that you’ve been listening attentively, by summarizing their story: “So, you were confused because the attendant touched you while were supposed to be social distancing, and you don’t want that to happen to anyone else, so you’re going to fill out the survey saying the store needs to do more training.” You’ll either get a “Right!” from the story teller (confirming that you understand them), or a correction, and you can keep pursuing understanding until you get confirmation from the story teller.

I know that sounds like a lot of brain work during a conversation, and holding off on our own judgments and similar stories while summarizing what we’re hearing sounds weird and unnatural. But remember how we aren’t naturally good at listening, so it makes sense that we have to work to learn a new, and better, way. That new and better way will feel awkward until it becomes a habit, so focus on the light of satisfaction you see in the face of the story teller when they feel heard, understood, and valued by your listening!
Practicing on casual conversations helps you make this a habit so gaining understanding in more weighty conversations, on topics like race relations, politics, or anything that triggers you, go easier than if you were trying to learn during such intense emotions.
It’s really hard to have these kinds of conversations on social media. Direct messaging and texting are better. A phone call is even better than texting, and a video call or in person conversation is the best option for really reaching understanding.

In my next post we will talk about how to manage your own emotions and switch to active listening instead of defensive listening when you’re triggered. We will also talk about making your response after you’ve reached understanding.

After that we will talk about how miscommunication happens, and how to resolve it!

Thanks for reading (and listening)!

Published by Sara Hall

Hi! My name is Sara. I'm a minister, author, and counselor in Oklahoma. I help people overcome the emotional barriers that prevent them from having their best possible relationships with God and others by helping people discover practical ways to apply Scripture to their everyday lives. My husband, Steven, and I have been married 15 years and we have two sons. We also own and operate a company called ModScenes.com which serves churches and businesses with modular stage backdrops for their services and events!

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