Truth is in the Shadows
What is Leadership?

Listening to the Stories People Tell Themselves


Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

People are, everyone of us, "embodied narratives." Our lives are unfolding stories that embody the values and desires that may or may not make sense to us. As a result, humans are beings who seek to make sense of the world they live in.

We all interpret what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste from our own perspective of experience. We put words to those sensory experiences to give us meaning and connection to other experiences and people.

People gather in bars to watch their favorite team play in the playoffs. They share a common love for their team, but each person's experience of that affection is different.

If you are a person who wants a life that is not mediocre and simply derivative of someone else's life, then learning to listen is a most important skill.

What Listening isn't.

Listening is not waiting to speak.

Listening is not preparing either a counter argument or a story which is to one-up the other person.

Listening is not being silent.

What I call listening is what others call active listening. It is seeking to understand what you are hearing in the context of the person who is speaking.

I don't know how many times that I have been listening to someone, trying hard to understand, and when I respond, thinking that I'm doing so appropriately, that I've missed the point that she was trying to convey.

Particularly with people we are just meeting, there are always missing clues that would help us better understand.

For example, a couple years ago I attended a festival day of the Laguna tribe in New Mexico. I had met a group of people from that tribe at a conference in Phoenix earlier in the year. It was there that I met Mollie Curtis who created the beautiful vase above. Their festivals are about their tribe, their families, and their traditions. I had lunch in the home of one family whose members were on the dance team.

As a Southern-born Caucasian, on the surface, this is an alien world to me. However, the longer I watched and listened, I realized that many of my own values are shared in their culture. As a result, I began to understand who they are.

Being able to listen and understand the other person is essential in a global culture that is a diverse as the world is today.

How To Listen.

1. Cast aside your assumptions that you already know and understand what the other person is saying.

Listen with openness, not judgment.

2. Whatever you are being told, there is a back story.

If we approach our communication with other people as one seamless thread, then we will realize that no conversation ever truly begins, but rather is a continuation of one that is constantly going on in our head, and the other person's as well.

When I tell about the time that I got our scout troop lost on a backpacking trip, I'm also saying something about the time as a child that I got lost and separated from my family at the county fair.

An anecdote always has a purpose other than the subject of the story.

Several years ago, I was facilitating a discussion with a congregation about the kind of pastor that they wanted as their search for a new one began. One member rose and with tremendous anger told us about what he didn't like about the previous pastor. In this instance, the back story was about values that he felt were apart of who they were as a faith community, yet were missing under the former pastor. What the man was telling us through his anger was what he loved. That was the back story in this situation.

3. Ask the other person to validate your understanding of what they are saying.

This is a act of respect. "Did I hear you say ...?"  "If I heard correctly ... "

4.  The stories we share are stories we tell ourselves that ground us in a way of life that makes sense to us.

Listen for the story.  It embodies something important about the other person. It is a way they define themselves.

5. In listening, the other person is sharing a part of themselves. Seek to find points of understanding and mutuality. Be grateful, and give them thanks.

These points of connection are typically based upon shared values.

When I first met Mollie Curtis, our connection was in the beauty of art as an expression of God's presence in the world. Beauty transcends the specifics of life. Today, I look at her vase and not only marvel at its beauty, but also her artist craft.

For listening to bringing unity and understanding to people, it demands of us to be grateful for their willingness to open themselves up to us. Listening maybe a tactic of communication, however, it is also how we bridge the gap that separates two people from genuinely understanding the another.

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