Turning Listening on its Ear

With THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Experience, we try to make listening easier.

To things that one family member saw one way, and another … well, another way. To beliefs and values that are different … but worthy of respect. To unspeakables.

Our process teaches that kinda through the back door. And, indeed, we were inspired to work on this as a design problem largely because of having been in “the “good listener” (which can sometimes be code for “frustrated listener”) position … for years.
But, short of learning to conduct the THJ® process for others, there’s a lot you can do, one on one, in your own life, especially as you’re listening in challenging circumstances.
You know when you’re stuck. They’re telling a story they’ve told before, a thousand times. It’s painful, and they’ve got how they tell it down. Now you’re the one who’s listening to it. It’s like the story got stuck in Times Roman, with an occasional drop shadow.
The thing is, they’re stuck, too. Most of us haven’t realized there’s more than one font to set a story in — more than one genre in which that story can fit. We’ve only learned to tell it one way.
And then the gifts in that story get clogged up in there, too.
You can help them shift the story, bring in Optima or Constantia or Futura. Or at least get them started with Century Schoolbook.

You’d do it gently, with the same simple strategy we share when teaching “story-catching” (a fancy name for interviewing). You ask a question.

One that asks them to re-see the world as it was at that moment, not as they see it now. You find a place to ask to take a pause so you can reflect on what they’ve said, and then you offer a question—something that you sincerely, and out of love, want to know — and you may break them out of crusty narrator mode, and re-settle them in a fresh view.

  • “Can I ask you to give me a second? I want to just sit with what you’ve just shared.” You wait and you genuinely dig down for the question that’s about what it was like for them at the time of the original story. Ideally (but it takes practice), the question will invite not a yes or no answer, but one that evokes the sights, smells, and perceptions of that time.


  • “Do you think he was aware that you were in the room, singing to him?” (Not bad — it’s yes/no, and it asks about someone else, not the storyteller, but it’s going to lead to a descriptive answer anyway about what his face looked like, what the signs were, how they were positioned in the room, and other things you can follow up on.)
  • “What do you think you were successful in communicating to her?” (Depending on the context, could be good — it asks for a descriptive answer, and also draws the person toward an owning of their inner life at the key moment.)
  • “For you, what’s the most memorable word or sound or thing you saw that seems to encapsulate the whole thing, or that’s strongest for you?” (Again, depending on the context, could be good: it drops the person down into the world of the original story and moves a bit beyond extraneous language to the power of the moment.)

The sincere desire to make listening an act of gently offering a re-formatting of a story — as long as it is presented as a desire to understand, not to judge, control, or change — can unlock what’s in there, once it’s freed from genre. Or font.

That’s one way to make of listening a gift.

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