Another Vote for the Art of Listening

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Last week, Lee Gutkind wrote a beautiful piece for the Times on How To Listen. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, as I have been teaching this skill — a skill that is not taught or even modeled well in most schools, or most families — for several decades. I also directed a documentary film about it (Listening With Their Eyes), and continue to practice it much of the day each week in private narrative therapy and coaching sessions.

I am a far more dynamic clinician than the one depicted by the author in the article, but I share with him an ardent commitment to paying close attention to the stories of my clients. I call myself a narratologist, and like the ‘interviewers’ referenced in the piece, it is my job to help people articulate their own stories and to attend to them utterly by reflecting back what I’ve heard, and asking the right questions to help elicit more. It is indeed an active process, one that requires all five senses, if not six or seven, as Dr. Daniel Seigel, a leading interpersonal neurobiologist, suggests.

Like the nonfiction writers that Gutkind also refers to, a narratologist is listening to the story that is told and the story that is left out: many of my clients claim to remember little or nothing of their childhoods. And, even when ‘the facts’ are shared, they are often filtered through the inherited opinions of others, or overlaid with the gloss of spin or the opacity of trauma. There are often tangential stories, which turn out not  to be so tangential... because everything is being filtered through and languaged by the same teller. And, as the writer asserts, if you keep your eye and ear on the primary narrative — ‘the story of them,’ as they hold it — you will keep returning to the source of historical learnings, as well as potential transformations.

Listening actively is all about asking the right questions, and knowing when to simply listen. But it is sensing the ‘inner POV’ to which Gutkind alludes that separates those of us who simply witness from those of us who can truly instantiate the experience of another. Knowing someone is about taking the time to learn the moments of their existence; as they say, ‘God is in the details.’ This kind of mindful attention is not only the stuff of good interviews, it is the stuff of good relationships.