I have someone in my life who is a terrible listener.
He loves talking about himself, his interests, life, work, hobbies, on and on and on. And sometimes, when he asks something about me I get kind of dazed, and I’m not really sure what to say. I erk out lots of “uhhs,” and “hmms..” and unconnected, abstract comments about what I am doing and what my thoughts are on life. However, I realized something very important: I am terrible at telling tories.
Often times we feel passed over by people who are excellent storytellers. We may resent that these people are the center of the party and fan themselves with the accolades they receive from others who are charmed by their soothsaying. We may become resentful of the attention these people receive, and get resentful that others aren’t fawning over us on account of our life experiences. However, this isn’t their fault. In addition, we might be upset that we listen attentively but they glaze over when we speak. While this might be rude, the fact that they are uninterested is not a slight against me, it’s only a statement that it’s really hard to make them pay attention.
Here is the key point: I need to clarify my story.
Clarity is that from which psychology cannot escape. Our brains are on a desperate quest to use as little energy as possible, and we are not likely to spend much time investing ourselves into something that does not engage our minds. In addition, the folks at storybrand.com have pointed out that our brains have been conditioned for many thousands of years to respond to stories. Even in the most crazy times of our fast-paced, mobile life, stories seem to come through. That’s why someone will have no time to call you back, but be willing to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The great thing about stories is that they fall into what you might call 7 basic plots. There is even a book about this by Christopher Booker (ironic last name). But even these seven plots can be boiled down to only 1 basic plot. Again stealing shamelessly from StoryBrand: You have a hero, who has a problem, he meets a guide who gives him a plan, that the hero takes action on, and leads him to either great success or tragic failure. Let that sink in for a while, or seriously, go visit storybrand.com.
I will leave with just a few more insights: The first is that everyone is the hero of their own story. In order to get someone to listen they must first realize that you are telling a story in which they see themselves as the hero. You are not your hero, your customer is. In your story, anything that doesn’t relate to the basic plot of what you are doing is of no use.
The second, is that when you speak, you are generally not telling a story. I can tell you all manner of details about life in Spain but that doesn’t matter in the least unless it’s put together in a story that communicates something, that solves the problem, or that appeals to a key interest you have, it doesn’t have any momentum.
Third: Telling a story is a performance. A performance can create momentum. And that momentum is extraordinarily valuable because it draws others in and keeps their attention. You don’t have to be an extraordinary story teller, but any good story teller knows a few things that will draw you in. Basic techniques in performance: eye contact, posture, tone of voice, vocal pauses, are the elements of good communication. You don’t need to be a master, but you need to start using them today.
Third: When you are listening, you aren’t listening for the elements of the story that the person is telling you. This is important because it clues you in to how this person sees themselves as the hero. When you are getting to know someone, it’s great to ask “where are you from,” “what are you doing these days,” but are you prepared if someone were to tell you, “I’m from Tattoine and I am here to undergo Jedi training after my only living family was destroyed by stormtroopers.”
Try this next time, repeat their story back to them, and tell them that you love their story. Then show them how they can be the hero in the story you are about to tell.