My Own Story of the listener. Perhaps this is the most revealing piece I have posted. While I have many tales that I have been told, I have few of my own that I tell. Perhaps it is the same for you.
It didn’t seem that important, really. It was just a story about his day. The guy was ready to talk, so I engaged. The saga was winding and short. Direct and specific but not harsh, the words came forth. Later, when he was done, he looked at me quizzically. “You are a good listener, like no one I have talked to”, he said, “I feel better.” The part I played rolled over in my mind. Like an old 8-track tape that is one continuous loop, it went from the beginning to the end and back again. It was nothing remarkable, just that I asked a couple of well-timed questions that were direct and specific, and he unpacked his story. It happens frequently. I think that it is simply another day, and another person and then they tell me stuff that they have told no one in their entire life and then they gasp… The recognition that they now have no control of what I was just given.
It seemed like a simple Tuesday or something, and they think that this secret they had kept locked in the safe place in their memory, was simply and easily given permission to be told. It happens in random places, like a gas station, or a plane ride. Sometimes 5 minutes is all you have and with the power of anonymity, because they will never be seen by me again, out it comes. Honest, clear, surprising. Safe. At least they hope so. You cannot give what you do not have, and so I must conclude that I give safety and strength of willingness and clear attention to their story. It wants to come out. All I do is call its name and give a whistle, sometimes it comes with friends that the speaker didn’t know was there.
It is a curious thing, listening. Most people claim that they like to listen, but mostly they want a listener. Someone that will listen first. What sets me apart is that I do. I tend to listen a bit longer than the first telling of the story, and then the second part, the bit not often told, will arrive. That is when the compliment based in surprise shows up. It is a discipline that reaps rewards. Like a chiropractor for the memory, a few pops and twists and you feel better, somehow. Some tell fun stories that have not been told since they happened. Some a bit of heat is added, and some are a bit embarrassed by that. Some are glad to finally “get that out in the open.” Tender places, hard history, painful memories, and lies. The lies are what they tell others that they think won’t stay long enough to hear the whole thing, so they pretend they are fine.
I ask a couple open questions and out comes the story. Once I was walking on the dock in the Bahamas (Boy Scout trip) and saw a guy swabbing down his boat. The simple statement was that “this is a job that never ends”, was met with what can best be described as an MRI scan of me. In a swim suit and a t-shirt I could be anyone… rich or poor. He decided that I was worthy of his time and out comes the story. He had bought the boat the same day as his friend bought one. His engines soot up the back of his boat and his friends' doesn’t. The locals want $200.oo to swab the boat and he doesn’t want to pay for the 20 minutes that it takes. Further in the conversation I find out that it has twin CAT marine engines and burns about 60 gallons an hour at full speed. It takes 4 hours to get to Miami. Fuel cost at the time was $6.oo per gallon. If you are keeping track, that is about $1,500.oo one way. It isn’t about the money. All of that took less time to tell than to write it out… he was angry about the injustice. The story wants told.
The questions stack up a bit. Sometimes it starts randomly and becomes a spiral getting to the key point. Other times it is clear and specific from the beginning. Interesting personal stories and random sprigs of a tale that ends different than you thought. Often it is simply a bit of vulnerability on a string and a hook that snags them. They are disarmed by the presence of the insight and the openness and they say, “yeah, me too.” A simple statement of a disarming nature and there it comes, if you will listen with a genuine curiosity. They will know if you are not an honest dealer.
I hear about sorrows and private pain. I hear about hidden dreams and hopes as well. I met a young lad in St Louis at a hotel, as he was getting me my coffee, I had noticed a curious tattoo of three stars with tails like they were moving. “Tell me about your tattoo” I said. Again with the MRI Scan to see if I was worthy of the tale.” I am hoping to be a Star someday” he said. I said great, doing what? “Roller skate dancing” came the reply. “Sheesh, that sounds like work!” I said… and off we went with the rest of the dream. Treated gently and with the mirror of hopes that he shared. I got to glimpse the dream that he had, and that was enough for me to smile and encourage. The story wants to be told, but it needs to trust the listener.
There is a counseling service with a catchy title that I saw. Mirrors to Windows Counseling. I love the thought of that. Changing self-reflection into the wide and curious world beyond. It is what I do for others sometimes. It is what they do for me, often. I get to see into their story. To hear of that which they want to tell me and sometimes what they did not see coming. The story of the 40 year old man that told of being raped, when he was 12, on his way to the barber in his small town.. and the look on his face when he realized what he had said. I had only asked about his job at the homeless shelter and how he got involved. It seemed a good story to ask about. Then the train hit him… I could see the horror and the fear of what he had said, and then the hope that I would be safe. It is a real thing, safety. It is also a real thing to give space. To allow for the expansion of the tale as it develops. Not random prattle of a talker, but a serious tale from one that usually doesn’t tell.
To give space is to allow the speaker time and room to let the tale take on a life of its own. To let it meander and then return with a few select questions or bits of “vulnerability magnets” that draw it back on track. To guide selectively and with purpose, but not control or a timeframe. Once I met a guy and it was three hours before we were done. The story was heavy and dark and personal. He thought I could handle it, so he kept talking. I have heard many stories. I have told a few as well. Sometimes the talker gets about done and then has to leave for some reason, leaving you short changed. Your story untold... Sometimes you know you should stay and life presses in hard enough that you must part, and you wish it wasn’t so. But it is so.
To let a story be told is to give a gift. To receive that gift, it is like a cool drink on a warm day. You are capable of giving that gift, but are you willing to tell the story? I am great at listening to others and very adept at the turn of phrase that returns the tale back to them. I am pretty miserable at telling mine. It is something that I have been called out on a few times, and now more probably as this gets into the air, but it is not long and the tale winds back to the one that enquired about my own story. I am getting better though. It is about trust and the space to perform the dance.
While I am private, the story wants told. I suppose that is the roots of the blog, to give the story a place to dance for others. To become an opportunity to blend my own tale with yours and to see what we can do about them. To listen and hope together. To weep or dream or both. To see the things that are seen by the normal people, but to see the shadows of the things that are missed by most. They are not normally mean or shallow, but they are busy and not looking. I am looking, and bold enough to ask, and then able to listen a while to the tale.
I am not certain about the way certain people were trained or if it is genetic or perhaps you were blessed with an old soul, but there are some that are simply different. It is work at times, not the listening, but the desire to do so. To put another first and to be genuinely curious during the story, such that it continues. At some point I have been curious about the listener for me, and how to find them. Then I remember that I have kept people at a distance or not believed that they could carry the load for even a little while. I think this is a disservice to them and our relationship. I will try harder in the future. I will trust and ask and hope for more.
We are all part of this crazy serendipity of our times. It is fun to watch as people receive the unexpected moments which bloom into a safe place to rearrange their loads. To set some things down that have been a burden longer than they liked. To be free for even just a little while. It is something that you can do. If you think of it, you will find that there is a group of people that you are good at listening to. Perhaps they are school kids and you read them books. Perhaps they are old, and you listen to their history. Perhaps it is the grieving at a funeral home and perhaps it is on a plane on a trip to home… Perhaps this time you will listen a bit longer. You will give a bit more space. You will be the one that is talked about to others as the “stranger that they met”. You gave them time and attention. You gave a gift, like a glass of water to a thirsty soul.
The question will come,” What about me. You never listen to me.” It is a truth. How is it that certain people get left out of this little bit of need that is left unmet? It is not that I can’t. The spouse or the child or the “one friend” that is always taken for granted or dismissed or ignored…. Where is the magic wand of the “great listener” for them? I can’t say. Perhaps we all have these that are on the second tier. The ones that see it happen and yet are short changed, not heard. I am certain I am guilty of this for a list longer than I would hope to know. People that I fail to call or fail to spend sufficient time with when I do. They are correct, I am sure. It is sadly true that most of them are probably close friends, and yet are short changed in this manner. I will work at being attentive, but it is a blind spot.
It is only a story, and it seems unimportant until it is yours. Do understand that these others believe the same. Walk gently among those that you meet. Their story is wanting to come out and be heard. Perhaps the same as your own. It is what made the documentary on WW2 so compelling, that the interviewer would listen long enough to get the story out. It is what these tellers of the tales had needed. It is not necessarily a war story for you, but it is a real battle of your own. It is a place of fear and pain and thirst. It too, wants to be heard. Give it a little bit of time to share the spotlight. Tell a friend. Be a listener.
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