Listen deeply. Whether it be to our own story or to the stories of others, deep listening can move people beyond facts and feelings. It can assist us all to connect the dots of past, present, and future until we discover the meaning and purpose of life. What can be more important than that?
Last week I once again had the privilege and responsibility of assisting with the Baltimore marathon by running for its excellent pace team organization. Since we had plenty of pacers to go around, I had the fun of staying with three people who got faster rather than slower in the final miles.
The runner I bonded with the most was a man named David, about my age, who was running his first marathon. He had never run more than 20 miles in training and had never received any formal marathon coaching until about six weeks before the race. He then worked with a nutritionist who assisted him to drop about 15 pounds and to bolster his long runs before tapering in the week before the race.
Whatever David did to get ready, it worked. The longer he ran, the faster he went. And it was a joy to accompany him down the home stretch. With every passing mile I could feel his energy surging. There was an air of incredulity and wonder as I told him how fast we were running in the last couple of miles. “I can’t believe I am running this fast,” he said, “after so many miles.” But that’s how a marathon works. Either it builds to a fantastic finish, like David’s, or it breaks you down in a not-so-subtle reminder of your own limitations.
My experience of running with David to a fine marathon finish was made all the more exciting because of the deep listening we shared over the last 14 miles. He was listening to his body, which enabled him to run a perfect race for his level of fitness and training. I was listening to his story, which enabled him to aspire to even greater heights in running as well as in business and life.
That’s what happens when we listen deeply, both to ourselves and to others. We end up connected to a much larger stream of consciousness, hope, and emotion than when we stay on the surface level. We end up connected to our own and/or another person’s story.
Listening deeply for the story line is, according to John Savage, what all listening is really about. We listen for interesting and inspirational stories in order to connect the dots through our past, present, and future. When we do, it’s not uncommon to find new reason for being and inspiration for life.
In his book, Listening & Caring Skills in Ministry, Savage suggests four different levels of story listening:
- Data Back Then. These are, as Sergeant Friday would say, “The facts, ma’am, and just the facts.” When someone talks about something that happens in the past, there will always be “data back then” information. “When I was a kid•” is a favorite opening line for parents and grandparents. These stories communicate the facts back then. But such stories are not confined to the distant past. “I remember when •” can apply equally well to ten days ago, ten weeks ago, and ten years ago. In every instance, the storyteller has something he or she wants to communicate about the past. Perhaps an agreement was reached. Or a trauma was suffered. Or a project was started. Listening for the “data back then” is the first level of Savage’s story listening.
- Feelings Back Then. Stories never stop with data alone. Even in the workplace, there are feelings associated with the stories we tell about working together and getting things done. Sometimes the feelings are expressed directly. “I was so angry at my boss last week when she totally changed a project I had been working on for days.” Other times the feelings are expressed indirectly, through tone of voice or body language. Even when people try to disguise or hide their feelings • poker face and all • those who listen deeply can discern them. “Last week my boss totally changed a project I had been working on for days,” may be accompanied by deliberate restraint or flushed cheeks.
- Feelings Now. Feelings back then inevitably lead to feelings now. Sometimes we have the same feelings now as we had back then. Other times our feelings are transformed by changes in position and perspective. I remember someone telling me about her involvement two years earlier in a rapid software implementation that had been very demanding, stressful, and tumultuous. At the time, she considered it the worst of times. “I had no life!” she was fond of saying. But now she looks back and considers it to be among the best of times. “We worked hard,” she said, “too hard, and there were many obstacles, too many, but we pulled together and got the job done. I’d rather have that than what I have now.” In this brief encounter, I heard feelings back then and feelings now. What a difference two years can make!
- Self-Disclosure. This is the part of the story that many people will get to only in the presence of someone who knows how to listen deeply. It often has to be drawn out of people, and when it comes they will often have an “Aha!” experience. They will see a connection between then and now that they did not realize before they started telling the story. Savage points out that this connection will usually produce an emotional reaction; people “may either cry or laugh, depending upon the type of story.” The more significant the story the stronger the reaction. Savage also points out that listening deeply can “bring to conscious awareness the meaning of a person’s story.” When this happens, life becomes enhanced and blessed with greater significance.
Is this not the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and/or to someone to whom we are listening? When people make discoveries into the meaning of their own lives, when they see connections they had not seen before, when a line is drawn between then and now, they find it easier to make sense out of and to adjust the trajectory of their lives. What a tremendous gift.
That is what happened as David and I ran those last fourteen miles of the marathon together. I heard all four levels of story: data back then, feelings back then, feelings now, and self-disclosure. It became clear what this marathon represented, as not just the accomplishment of a lifetime but also as the stepping stone to bigger and better things in life. No wonder David and I have already spoken about LifeTrek coaching as vehicle for him to keep moving forward. The experience of deep listening is productive, enjoyable, and inspiring.
Keep in mind that deep listening is something we can do for ourselves as well as for others. How often do you stop and listen to your own life? In her now famous book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameroon recommends the discipline of writing three pages every morning. Write less, she cautions, and you won’t go deep enough. Write more, and you will probably burn out before it becomes a daily habit. Deep listening as a daily habit is the point of her discipline, and it is all too lacking in our hurry-hurry, fast-paced lives.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Every time someone tells us a story about his or her life, every time we take a half hour to step back and organize our thoughts, we have the opportunity to listen deeply to the facts and the feelings. Do not become impatient with yourself or others. Draw out the truth. Suspend all judgment on what you are hearing. Let the words come. By so doing, you will extract the wisdom and fortitude of life.
Coaching Inquires: When was the last time that you offered or received deep listening? Can you remember how that felt? How can you do more deep listening in the week ahead? Can you pick out one person with whom you want to make a special effort in this regard?
LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
I really got a jolt from last week’s Provision. I realized how much I interfere in conversations and finish sentences for people, particularly in a casual conversation. When I’m talking to cancer patients I can listen intently and let them finish their sentences. Maybe I can tell the difference between serious conversations and casual ones and maybe do the right thing SOMETIMES!!!! I really love your letters. They are my second sermon for Sundays! And I DO listen to them.
Thank you for the last two Laser Provisions on Listening. I must admit, I am one of those people that can hardly wait to talk that I fail to apply disciplined listening skills. I will share this information with my husband. Additionally, sharing a story about someone else’s marriage communication failure may help with not placing the blame on our own failure to communicate effectively as a couple.
Christina’s last Parenting Pathway describes an activity called “I like you,” wherein a parent takes time to look at a sleeping child and itemize the ways in which the parent likes the child. She asserts that these thoughts will influence the parent’s behavior and encourage the parent to share their deepest love with the child. That’s good. However, this does not breed self-esteem, but esteem. Self-esteem can come only from within: from accomplishments, thoughts, and plans that are consistent with the individual’s ‘true north’ goals and that are within the ‘zone’ of ability (that is, those activities that present a reasonable challenge and are neither too simple (boring) nor too difficult (frustrating)). Simply telling someone they’re wonderful may be loving, but it is not the best builder of self-esteem. One must earn respect and accolades. Without the earning, the respect and accolades can be counterproductive.
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May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
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