When was the last time you listened to yourself?
When was the last time you asked yourself what story do I want my life to tell?
When was the last time you took action to live a life worth telling about?
I have spent the last few weeks checking out new greenways in my area.
It's funny how you can live somewhere for your whole life and never have the time to see what's around you.
Recently, on my Middle Tennessee greenway adventures, I stumbled upon an old family cemetery that was nestled along the public walking path.
I love cemeteries. They are places of calm and reflection for me, and each plot houses a multivolume library of stories, both told and untold.
With my discovery, I could not help myself but go in. I found the old weather wooden gate and eased it open to see the newest grave in the whole area was dated 1923.
I walked from grave to grave, wondering about the stories I was standing above.
That visit made me think, as I read headstones. I realized that there would be a point in all of our lives where we will be gone longer than we are here. Our time of influence is short, but our life of legacy is forever.
More than ever did I understand that our stories will be our key to immortality.
Questions began to flourish.
What contribution am I making?
What story do I want to live forever?
Am I living a good story?
Am I taking advantage of opportunities now?
Do I do enough stuff that scares me?
Then, I thought, why am I asking these questions now? I should be asking myself these questions every day because a life worth telling about is a daily practice.
These questions have always been there, but I have failed to listen.
What questions are within you?
When you ask, LISTEN!
What is your answer, and what's your plan?
Living a life worth telling about requires action. You have to ask, and then you have to do.
One big misconception of storytelling is that it is more about telling than listening. It's a simple misconception since it's story"telling" not story"listening."
The key ingredient to becoming a better storyteller is to become a storylistener.
Listening is a choice.
We choose what to listen to every day, and choosing not to listen creates adverse consequences.
You see this everywhere.
I love to people watch, especially at the airport. Airports are the crossroads of the world because you have people from all nations and backgrounds passing through to unknown destinations. As I watch people amid travel, I wonder where they are going and where they're coming from. I wonder about the circumstance that surrounds their journey.
Through observation, you can pick out the travelers oblivious to the world. You can pick out the nonlisteners.
The earbuds are in, the phone's up, and they have a bag full of distractions.
Some people get so engrossed they miss their flight, or they are the last ones to board and delay a plane full of people's plans.
Choosing not to listen and be aware creates unnecessary consequences.
That is one way we choose not to listen.
Listening is a choice we make every day.
Choosing whether or not to listen manifests in a multitude of ways.
Do we or don't we listen to that pile of laundry?
If we don't, we've got nothing to wear and double the work.
You find yourself digging through the dirty clothes, smelling the ripeness of socks to see if you can get one more wear out of them because you chose not to listen.
Temptation speaks through the cake in the fridge.
By listening to the voice that says, "One piece won't hurt," we gain ten pounds in a week, and we undo three months of healthy choices and work.
It comes back to the power we have to choose.
When we choose not to listen, we tend to choose to complain.
Complaints put the focus on ourselves while listening requires us to move beyond ourselves to focus on others.
It's a fact; you cannot complain about the conscious choices you make.
When you choose not to listen, you cannot complain about the consequences that follow because you created the situation.
Failing to listen creates missed opportunities; it creates missed moments with important people. Not listening means being unaware of the life that is passing you by.
Listening is intentional living and an essential key to storytelling.
Listening redirects the focus to create an environment of understanding, and choosing to listen to others' stories offers a lens to understand our stories better because it shifts our focus.
Storytellers are communicators of understanding as listening bridges the gap between time, space, communities, and people from all over the world.
Competent storytellers cannot be poor listeners.
It is incredible what you see when you look. It is incredible what you hear when you listen. It is incredible what you feel when you touch.
Do you notice something about the verbs in these sentences?
One is passive, and one is active. One happens on its own the other requires intention.
You can see something without looking at it. You can hear something without listening to it, and you can feel something without touching it.
It comes down to intention.
As storytellers, we have to be intentional. Intentionality is apart of the magic of storytelling as it is living. We take the insignificant and examine it for greatness. Some of the greatest moments in life occur because you have paid attention. You've listened in someway.
Listening is the only way to examine effectively.
The art of active listening must be a regular practice in our humanity. Two keywords here. Active, which means there is required action, and practice, which means it is a skill that needs honing. Active listening is not something that happens on its own without thought and intentionality.
We are never really taught to listen; we are told that we must listen. How can you do something that you don't know how to do?
You create a method, whether it be right or wrong. It is a method that fits the need of the time. It eventually becomes a regular practice. As time goes by, your listening strategy has worked. You think it's right until you arrive at a situation where it no longer works, but you do not realize it is not working. Those situations manifest as arguments, confusion, relationship problems, general dissatisfaction.
To help solve these problems, we must become active listeners for the sake of our relationships, ourselves, and our stories.
Here are 5 ways to improve your active listening skills.
Unplug from the electronics and move from the distractions. Put the phone down. Close the computer. Turn off the TV. We cannot listen when we cannot hear. One of the significant dilemmas for citizens of the 21st century is the bombardment of distraction. We have so many things fighting for our attention. We have control on where to put our intention, but we fail to choose wisely. Before you can listen, you have to unplug and get away from distractions.
Connect to the person you're talking to. Let the person know you are giving your undivided attention. Just note, that person, maybe you. We have to listen to ourselves as much as we have to listen to others. The person you are listening to needs to know you are present and you're listening. They need to know they have your attention. You know when someone is there in body but not mind. You can see it on their face. Physically, they're a few feet from you, but mentally and psychologically, they're thousands of miles away. Find ways to connect to let the other person know you are present.
Give good feedback. Feedback lets the person speaking know that you are with them. You are occupying the same space, and they're being heard. Feedback does not mean you chime in every time the other person takes a breath because it is more than words. We spend more time thinking about our response in conversation than listening to what's being said. Feedback is reciprocal communication to let the other person know they are being heard. It is beyond verbal, and nonverbal feedback is as valuable as words. Feedback could be as simple as a nod, a smile, eye contact, anything as long as you are making a connection, and the other person is taken seriously.
Understanding is the purpose of communication. Your job as an active listener is to make sure you understand what you are hearing. If you don't understand, state that. Repeat back what you've heard. Ask them to repeat or rephrase what you didn't understand. This concept is true when we communicate with ourselves. We have to make sure we understand who we are as people. That means engaging in conversation with ourselves. We may have to ask ourselves to repeat or rephrase what we don't understand.
5. Judge Not
Listeners are not judges. The world is full of enough people to provide judgment on us. When we are in the role of the listener, we need to hear. We need to take in what's being given to us. We need to recognize it and understand it, but we do not need to judge it. People feel comfortable talking with us for a variety of reasons. Not feeling judgment could be the main reason for comfort. As a listener, know your role.
This is true as we communicate with ourselves, especially when we engage in creative work. We are our harshest critic because we fail to listen without judgment. We would not say to others what we say to ourselves. There are plenty of judges; we need to welcome the conversation. When you listen to yourself, don't judge. Accept. When you listen to others, don't judge. Accept them.
Over the next few days, weeks, and months, challenge yourself to be a responsible, active listener, not only to others but yourself.
Consciously, unplug, connect, give feedback, understand, and judge not.
You will be surprised by what you can hear when you listen, and what you can learn when you are mindful.
"I hear everything you say!" That was the most frustrating line I heard as a child. Now, granted, I was probably like a broken record, and I was saying the same thing over and over and over again. I knew my mother was tired. I know now as a teacher, you can only hear your name so many times before you want to change it to anything other than what it is.
Regardless of what I did to garner that response, my frustration came because I was being heard not listened to.
Many of the problems we face are the result of being heard not listened to.
How many relationships have failed because of the lack of listening?
How many wars have started because of the lack of listening?
How many opportunities have been missed because of the lack of listening?
Over the next several posts, we are going to discuss the importance and power of listening as it impacts living, understanding, and storytelling.
The first step to better our understanding of listening is to define what it is by recognizing what it is not.
Hearing and listening are not the same things, but we often use the words interchangeably. Vocabulary is so essential.
Hearing is the physical act of taking in sound.
Hearing is essential to the work of the equipment. If you have ears and they work to the slightest degree, you can hear some noise. That is the extent of hearing. Noise happens, and you, through the miraculous design of the human body, consume that sound. That is hearing. That's it. Period.
Listening is processing sounds for meaning. When we process in the form of listening, we take the sounds in and try to make sense of them.
We are all wired to be storytellers. Jonathan Gottschall, in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Makes Us Human, says that our brains are so hungry for stories that we will subconsciously make stories up to satisfy our minds. For example, if we see chewing gum stuck on a piece of furniture, our mind will tell us the story of how it got there. True or not because we feel we must know. We say to ourselves, "You know I bet some kid got tired of chewing and just stuck that there..." "Look what some lazy person has done..." The scenarios we create in our minds feed us the stories we need. They are not right or wrong. We don't know how the gum got there, but our mind supplies us with narrative possibilities. We have an innate need to know.
Hearing and listening are not the same, but we must hear before we can listen.
Another example, a mother knows what her baby needs by listening to the sounds it makes.
She can distinguish the cries one from another. One cry means hunger; one cry means wet; one cry means pain. There is a cry for everything, but a mother knows.
To the nonparent, the cries could be irritating and sound like obnoxious noise.
The mother can interpret the noise to understand the needs of the child.
That's listening in its purest form.
This information seems simple and common sensical.
Often the simplest things are overlooked due to their simplicity.
It is essential to note that listening takes practice, and it just does not happen on its own.
The mother has experience knowing her child's sounds. The passerby does not.
As listeners, we must practice. We must take time to distinguish between hearing and listening, and we must listen to what is around us to interpret the message we need to understand.
There is so much we miss because we fail to listen because listening goes beyond audible sounds. We listen to our bodies, our conscience, our environments, and we probably do that without realizing it. The importance of listening is to do it purposefully.
When you are mindful in your actions, you will discover new meanings. New meanings lead to new experiences.
Over the next few weeks, we will raise our listening awareness.
Up next...5 Ways to Be an Active Listener
Not all stories are ours to tell, even the ones that impact us.
Too often, we focus more on the tale than the transformation.
Here are 3 ways to tell a story that does not belong to you.
You may ask, "What does it mean that a story doesn't belong to me, especially if it changed me?
Some stories are cultural and sacred.
Those stories belong to the people of that culture. Just because a cultural or sacred tale impacted you, does not give you the right to tell it as you own it.
Some stories belong to other people.
A story of someone's personal experience may be magnificent, but it is not your experience. It is for them to tell, not necessarily you.
Here are 3 ways for you to tell stories that do not belong to you.
Think of the most beautiful picture frame you can imagine. Close your eyes. Visualize it. Do you see it? That frame tells a story. It tells a story before you even get to the picture inside of it.
Now, think of the most basic picture frame you've seen. It was probably a black square. It was plain, but it held the picture just as the fancy frame did.
A frame's job is to hold a picture.
A frame story works the same way; it holds a story.
Frame stories are one of the oldest methods of telling a story, and you see evidence of the narrative frame in early British Literature. William Shakespeare used it in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mary Shelley used it in Frankenstein. It's purpose then is as strong as its purpose now. If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for you.
What is a frame story?
A frame story is a story that rests inside another story. It's that simple.
A story that does not belong to you needs to be framed by your experience. You need to begin telling about you. Who were you before you heard this story? Where were you at in life?
You begin to answer the "why" questions.
Why are you telling this story?
Why do we need to know about you before you tell it?
The "why" frames the tale.
I will talk more about frame stories in my next post.
Once you have constructed a frame, you can begin to tell the tale.
Be mindful, you are not just telling the plot, but you are telling the story. Often, when we retell stories that don't belong to us, we just give the highlights of the plot. It is much like one of those summary books you used in high school or college that summarized the book, and it spared you from reading it.
Audiences don't want plot summaries; they want stories!
Identify and animate the significant players.
Bring the audience in.
Activate the senses!
The binding that holds your frame together is transformation.
You can build the most beautiful frame and insert the most fascinating story, but if it is not bound together and hung adequately by transformation, you have nothing.
It will fall apart.
What is transformation?
Transformation is how that story changed you. The person you were at the beginning should not be the person you are at the end.
Transformation is the change in you.
That change can only be attributed to the story you told.
The transformational power finishes out the frame because it continues to answer the "why."
This is "why" I am different.
This is "why' my thoughts changed.
This is "why" this story changed me.
Through framing, telling, and transformation, you can take stories that do not belong to you, and you can make them yours. You are telling the story of your transformation, so you are not just telling a story for the story's sake. You are telling the story to attest to the transformational power of stories.
If you are telling stories for performance, it is still essential to ask permission before you tell tales that are sacred, cultural, or personal to individuals and groups. Remember, you are telling a story that does not belong to you.
For example, I have a friend that I adored. She was one of the kindest funniest, most sincere people I have ever met. She passed away New Years Day 2015. She told me one of the most amazing personal stories of how she met her birth mother decades after she was adopted. Based on the impact the story had on me, I knew it needed to be told, but it was not my story to tell. Not too long after she passed away, I was booked at a storytelling festival, and I wanted to tell her story. I made sure to ask her daughter for permission to do so before I did it. She graciously gave it. In the telling, I framed it, told it, and emphasized the transformational power of it.
To a degree, these steps made the story mine because it was more about how I was changed, but it added to my dear friend's legacy and immortality because new audiences experienced her story.
How can this help you tell stories that don't belong to you?
Let me know in the comments.
Our world is increasingly becoming smaller. That has its perks. We can sit in our living rooms and witness events on the other side of the world in realtime. No other generation in history can claim that reality.
As global citizens, we begin to take ownership of things that do not belong to us. Another person's story is not our story. Yet, we go, and we tell it like it is ours.
Not every story belongs to us.
In the summer of 2017, I fell in love with the Mississippi Delta and the Blues. It was a summer of discovery as I walked paths formed by others' blood, sweat, and tears.
It was an emotional life-altering journey that impacted my daily life.
There is so much story there. That's unfamiliar to most.
Subconsciously, I made it my mission to tell the story of the Delta and the Blues.
After multiple visits and conversations, something in me said, "This is not your story."
I was disappointed because the world needs to know about this treasure.
Within seconds, I heard, "You must tell what the story did you."
That is when everything was put into perspective.
Not every story is ours to tell.
We hear and experience narratives that hit home and touch us in almost unspeakable ways.
Our first inclination is to tell the story. We feel that we have the right to make that tale our own. That's false.
Here is why.
Stories are about connection.
The story that impacted you so immensely is more about the power of the narrative than the narrative itself.
You experienced it in a time you needed it, and it changed you. Change is a good thing. However, you trace the change back to the tale and feel entitled to that story.
Something happens as we begin to retell it; it turns into a "You Had to Be There" moment.
If you're unfamiliar, a "You Had to Be There" moment is when the retelling of a moment that gets lost in translation.
We've all been there.
You were with your friends, and something happens that is just so funny. It is so ridiculous that everyone is laughing so hard they cannot catch their breath. People are doubled over, and some are on the floor. It was all because of a trigger word that exploded in that moment of hilarity. You know that everyone that hears about this will have the same gut-busting reaction.
You go to work the next day, and you tell your BFF what happened. And...nothing. No laughter. No amusement at all. After you realize, you say the dreaded phrase, "Well, I guess you just had to be there." It is disappointing because you know how good that moment was!
Stories that do not belong to you run the risk of the same fate.
On one of my Delta adventures, I became enamored with the story of Robert Johnson.
(Sidebar...If you don't know who Robert Johnson is, Robert Johnson is a Bluesman that supposedly sold his soul to the devil to play the Blues.)
The story astounded me.
It was scary and supernatural, and it seemed far-fetched, but, depending on your spiritual raising, plausible.
When I brought that story back and told it with fervor and passion, people looked at me like, "Ok...and?"
It was disheartening because the audience did not get it.
It was not my story to tell.
What stories can we tell?
You have the right to tell how the story changed you.
You have a right to the story of transformation.
How do you tell that story?
Stay tuned to find out!
Charlie McCoin is a teacher, a traveler, and a storyteller who works to help people discover and tell their stories.