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Using Story to Listen

An anticipated conversation may be ostensibly civil, yet emotionally explosive with a potential to derail reason and undermine feeling safe. Consider instead a type of guided conversation that has a container for challenging fear, anger, and grievance into being heard, listening, and acknowledging others. Starting with really listening can move the dialogue toward a real conversation built on reasoning.

After the Charlottesville demonstrations in 2017, I watched the video of author Brené Brown on 8/29/17 about owning a collective American story. I have added to her insights the idea of listening directly to others who are stuck in stories of entitlement, cynicism, and white supremacy -- because they are shouting over all other conversation and can’t stop until they get it all out and shift the story.  Brown says that our culture becomes dangerous when we tell their story for them. Of course I too have disgusts, fears of the breakdown of democracy, and rants of my own, so we’re all stuck in this together.

Brown’s books tell us how to make space for vulnerability in positive emotional support. I appreciate her allowing negative and positive emotions. Our political culture isn’t really engaging each other in reason; the ascendance of our negative emotions of anger and fear are remarkable. So let’s start there as too many people can’t get beyond accusations of “Fake News!�

Brown uses the word “storyâ€�. Starting with runaway emotions, story gives us a path without triggering disrespect for the teller or the listeners. It’s an ancient form also known as mythology -- a good stand-in for “Fake Newsâ€�, and for what “has never happened but is happening all the time.â€�  (--Joseph Campbell)

Recently there have been many books on story in many fields. But my most remarkable read was a basic Psychology textbook teaching the basic neurology of human perception as based in story. Humans do not collect sensory impressions as bits of data to interpret consciously; we use a hard-wired filter for possible meanings based on already presumed context; the process operates in milliseconds. We try one interpretation in our collection to see if further data confirms it and if not, try another one within milliseconds. These interpretations are much faster than conscious analysis, and are not bytes but stories that supply the meaning of our observations as a whole. Reason is what we do at a slower pace using conscious thought to connect our observation stories and solve any cognitive dissonance. This process is even more critical in observing other people.

A Face-to-Face Process for Polarization

So let’s gather for Fake News, conspiracies, and attribution of blame.  Admit everyone has some. The way through is to embrace the fiction. Here’s how to both allow and finish the rants:

Recognize it is not about facts, but rather a process of grappling with and grasping for intensely personal meanings that are carried with intense emotions; anger, fear, and grief are blinding. Allow people to take responsibility for their own hot buttons while not letting them put anything on you. Never feel that you are taking them on.

Listen to the story, the whole story played out to a natural ending, when the teller is left to face their illusion of attack in the fearful or angry narrative. The speaker’s sense of being heard and acknowledged results more from facing the end of their telling than from any response received. Yet it will help possible future dialog to listen for the meaning of the story to them, and for their needs and values in a positive sense. People have to disillusion themselves; an outsider can’t prove it to them. They have to get to the end of the rant, feel emptied, and ready to explore new ground.

You can deal with any divisiveness if you can get tellers and listeners to agree to these ground rules:

* Essentially, modify your story to make it not personal or aimed at anyone present or loved by anyone present. Try valuing its courageousness and tell it as a drama with fictional characters. It is just as satisfying to your brain to have your story heard when you don’t try to make it factual. Like a movie, it will still have its meaning.

* People who fear the trauma of put-downs may need us to build up containment first. Ask “What do you need to feel safe?� Establish mutual rules of what’s and not OK, although a leader not afraid of emotions, though afraid of attack, may need to set the boundary that no one is responsible for another’s feelings, only being accountable for behavior respecting others’ autonomy and safety. We must find a safe environment to overcome trauma and be vulnerable. Let people use their own language, and hold them accountable to the container rules.

* Tell in words and sound effects only, stop yourself from acting out; saying it with feeling will be just as effective.

* Prepare to listen to the end of a long story. However, set the expectation that stories can be more dramatic, more emotional (in words only, mind you), and thus get it finished sooner so we can get another story told.

* You are not responsible for a storyteller’s viewpoint or feelings, only they are, so don’t take it inside. Do step out of the action, and hear it like a movie. Know that you are in you own story at all times, and can hear another story at the same time.

* When a story ends, just wait. Don’t preach, suggest anything, or make overtures. Only the teller directs their own next step or change.

* Everyone will have a story-telling turn, but only after others are completely finished. It’s an exchange of simply being heard, and heard to the end.


Only if you own your story, you can own and choose the ending. When the storyteller feels acknowledged and complete, they may want a different ending to their story, want to ameliorate it and start a new story, are ready to hear your story, or want to make a new story with you.

With practice really hearing someone and getting yourself heard, you’ll notice the difference between the feelings of someone ready for new conclusions, inspiration, and common ground, and someone who hasn’t had their stories heard and felt ownership of the outcome.  (And there still will be ranters impervious to acknowledgement because they really are stuck in past stories, interactions, trauma, mental illness, though you will be surprised by how much most people can clear if they tell it all.)

So when a storyteller feels acknowledged and complete, the questions for inhabiting the newly created “common ground�, for teller and listeners:

  • “What do you want to make happen?â€�
  • “What do you want to offer to these others?â€�
  • “What you you want to do together?â€�
Then you can have the next storytelling session for your new story endings, your ideal stories, your joint stories.  Time for a lot of negative drama is well worth the outcome of common creation on common ground.

Agreeing on facts becomes important only after we’ve understood others’ meaning and values, we’re open to the new perspectives of other stories, and we’re jointly investing in creating some goal together.  First, you’ve got to be in a common story -- like a myth or a patriotic story or just open common ground to explore -- as a shared context for facts and reason.

Civility, Unity and Integrity the Coffee Party USA way

We bring our stories to political debate

Jeanne Bear studied in the first Human Capacities Training Program.  She has led workshops in emotional development. She writes about paradigm change and the neuroscience of human perspective, perception, narrative, and emotions.


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