What is a storylistener?

Dendrochronologists, scientists who date and interpret past events through tree rings, are a nice metaphor for storylisteners. What appears simple, counting rings, is actually quite complex. “Numerous studies illustrate how ring-counting leads to incorrect conclusions drawn from inaccurate dating,” the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona tell us. In fact, one of the most accurate approaches is “matching ring-growth characteristics across many samples from a homogeneous area (area of similar environmental conditions).” Put simply, it takes a forest to understand a tree.

If we are storytelling animals then, just like trees, we bring context to each other’s lives. Listeners become a vital part of the environment. As we explore this skill, I want to acknowledge that storylistening can mean many things. In fact, there is a book called “Storylistening” with a very different goal in mind. In this case, I am referring to the skill as a way to understand the life and identity of another person.

How are storylisteners different from audiences?

The telling and listening* happen in relationship. An audience might actively engage (through laughter, tears, empathy, etc.) with a story, which is powerful in its own right. Storylisteners do not just engage with the story, but with the the tellers themselves. And the storytellers do not need to be masters of the art for storylisteners to do their work. Like the dendrochronologists, storylisteners are there to make sense of what they find by exploring the environmental conditions of that life—people, places, times, events, and themes.

What appears simple is actually quite complex. Active listening and employing the tools of storytelling, the storylistener uses questions, connections, and structures for everyone to understand the most meaningful possible narrative. Ultimately, the storylisteners reflect the story back to the tellers, often a powerfully emotional experience of acknowledgment. And unlike dendrochronologists, we get to ask the tree about their rings, and their roots for that matter.

Getting started

These primers are intended to address key skills of storylistening and prepare participants for a “story trust,” which is defined in Question 3. Feel free to contact me with questions, and let’s practice becoming better storylisteners together.

Question 1: Do we really know how to listen?

Question 2: How do we listen for story?

Question 3: What is a story trust?

* Storylistening need not be confined to voices speaking and ears listening. A storylistener could work via text, drawings, dance, and any other number of acts of expression. The key element is interaction, however that takes place.