Want To Tell Better Stories? Be A Better Listener.


They say everyone has a story to tell.

Which makes it incredibly unfortunate that no one knows how to listen.

And I’m here to tell you this: if you have crappy listening skills, no one will listen to you.

Active Vs Competitive Listening

Tell me: when’s the last time you actually listened? Like, sat quietly and engaged fully in someone else without a billion of your own thoughts, comments and stories running through your mind?

This is the habit known as competitive listening.

Instead of quieting our minds and actually listening to what someone is saying, we are already

  • planning our response
  • thinking we already know what is going to be said (and maybe we do)
  • keeping track of holes in their story
  • thinking they’re full of it
  • wondering what to make for supper
  • focusing on their out of place eyebrow hair
  • can bees really smell fear?
  • “poop” is a funny word. poop. poop. pooooooop. poop.
  • etc….

A world over-saturated with useless information being hurled at us only makes us worse. We’ve had to learn to tune out hoards of advertising and other messages begging for our attention. Tools that are meant to be used for engagement are nothing more than platforms for our own grandstanding.

We are competing for airtime, even in our own heads!

In the process, we’ve learned to tune out each other.

If we struggle to actively listen, how do we expect anyone to listen to us?

What is Active Listening?

It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It means instead of being distracted by the world and the stuff swimming in your own head, you make an effort to not only hear, but also to understand what the other party is saying. You confirm you have heard by reacting appropriately both with your body language and your response.

It is the recognition that successful and meaningful communication is more than what you have to say, but your commitment to truly engage as a listener.

How To Actively Listen

  1. First things first, put your cell phone away. Eliminate distractions. We all know what it’s like to talk to someone who is plunking away on their phone. It’s gross.
  2. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact.
  3. Focus on what is being said. Instead of building your own argument or contemplating your response, simply quiet your internal dialogue and allow the speaker to have your full attention.
  4. Keep an open mind to what is being said – and allow the speaker to finish. You may not agree with him, or you may feel defensive about what is being said, but try hard to not pass judgement while the speaker is speaking.
  5. Respond appropriately. This includes your body language while they are speaking and your response once they have finished. Refrain from jumping in with a personal comparison or something that turns the topic of conversation back on you.
  6. Ask follow up questions or reiterate key points to confirm you are on the same wavelength.
  7. Don’t interrupt. In fact, try waiting a whole five seconds after the other party is done speaking to ensure they are done. They may think of another point to add as they are processing their own thoughts.

Why does any of this matter?

Roland Barthes said “hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act.”

I would like to add that true, active listening is an emotional and intellectual skill that takes time to master.

You want the world to hear you – whether it’s via your blog, through your organisation’s branding, or simply at your own kitchen table. But have you ever stopped to consider that listening comes before being listened to?

Better Listening Leads to Better Telling

While I would argue with the idea that , I won’t argue with the idea that everyone has a something to say.

We have evolved to tell stories. Deep in our very bones and marrow is the capacity to learn, connect and engage through story.

But here is something none of those articles about storytelling will tell you.

The storyteller is just a vehicle. He is secondary to the story.

The story is the listener.

If not for listeners, stories are “tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

If a story falls in the forest and no listener is around to hear it, it does not make a sound.

First, actively listen. Then, passionately tell.

When you learn to listen, you learn to connect to others. This connection not only allows you to tell better stories (the ones their own ears are thirsty for) but it shows you are worth listening to in turn.

Trust me. This will help you in every aspect of your life.