Thursday, May 10, 2012

Listening for stories, a uniquely human, unautomated response

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar

Sometimes I find myself wandering in conversation. I get distracted by peripheral cues on speakers (tattoos, verbal mannerisms) and hypotheses of my own I'm continually testing (building a case).

In light of my past post on storylistening in business, I've started thinking more specifically about what it means to be a good listener, without technology. The other night a friend (who happens to be a preeminent communications researcher) suggested "patience" and "imagination." Patience for a story to develop, imagination to string it together.

Imagination has stuck with me-- and might be the perfect concept to help turn storytelling on its head (to story listening). We naturally think about the ability to capture people's imagination with stories we tell, but what about using your own imagination to capture other people's stories, as listeners?

This reminds me of what Robert Sapolsky highlights in his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, about the role of stress making us vulnerable to disease. Sapolsky explains that an unfortunately unique human ability to worry is what predisposes us to stress (thus illness) over Zebras, for example, who focus on acute physical stressors (e.g. running from predators, asap!).

Worrying, in some ways, is about being imaginative-- thinking about the future, letting our minds wander as we play with potential scenarios. It's the downside of imagination. In listening for stories, we have to learn to harness the ability to be imaginative without wandering aimlessly, or ruminating. We have to imagine characters for whom who we may not have faces to place, we must infer emotions, deduce feelings, 'form images not perceived through our senses'. But we have to do this in a focused way.

To listen for a story strikes me as a uniquely human thing to do; yet, something we don't naturally slip into as automatically as our stress response kicks in with 'worry.' If we hone our imagination as we listen, I think stories will more easily emerge.

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