Listening Archives

How to listen to a story about you

This week I sent two separate emails to two different friends.

In each email I told that friend a story about something they said several years ago that meant a lot to me and I thanked them for it.

Even though the stories were not at all similar to each other, and both friends are very different from each other, they both had a similar reaction.

Both friends enjoyed the stories but said something like, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that!”

They responded this way even though I had made it clear how much I had appreciated what they said.

It occurs to me that listening to a story about yourself is similar to looking at a photograph of yourself.

When someone hands you a photograph, isn’t the tendency to look at yourself with a critical eye and notice your flaws, even if the person handing the photo to you says they think it’s a great photo?

I guess it’s because a photo can make you feel vulnerable and exposed, even if it’s a fantastic-looking photo. It’s hard to look at yourself with the same uncritical eye that the other person does.

Stories are the same way.

The next time someone tells you a cool story about you, go easy on yourself.

It’s more than OK to enjoy the fact that you’re the main character in the story and that you made a difference in their life.


When pain brings forth a story that heals

When I was a senior in high school I managed to hurt my closest friend.

Being a typical self-absorbed teen I was totally oblivious to this, of course.

So she went and had a private chat with my mother about it even though I think it was the first time they ever had an actual conversation beyond small talk.

My friend told my mom that I often went on about how excited I was to ditch our small hometown and go to the big city to college.

Apparently I made it all too clear how cool I thought this was and how special I thought I was because I was going to go to the big city soon. I was so focused on the future and the shiny things that awaited there that I forgot about the friend putting up with me day after day in the present.

After airing her grievances about me she then told my mom stories from her early childhood – stories of abuse and mistreatment.

I had never heard these stories before.

When I got home and my mom told me of this conversation, she made it clear that my self-centeredness and pride about going off to college was very disappointing.

She was clearly on my friend’s side. This hurt me at the time but now I see how wonderful it was that she could be objective and not just take my side because I was her daughter.

It was painful to hear this negative feedback and I was very embarrassed that my friend had talked to my mother about it.

Of course I wanted to say,  “Geez, what I didn’t wasn’t that bad. Besides, I’ve spent so much time with her over the years, we’ve had great times, doesn’t that count for anything?” but I knew better than to say that out loud.  It would be like looking at a flower garden full of weeds and saying, “But last year I weeded so diligently, so why aren’t the flowers flourishing this year?!”

Then my mom told me my friend’s stories and my heart sank.

I was angry that my friend had to experience such things.

I was sad that my constant chatting about myself and my future had made her feel rejected, which must have reminded her of the rejections of her early childhood.

I was hurt that my friend didn’t feel like she could confide in me directly but in retrospect I can see why she would seek out an adult. My mother was the perfect choice. With her background in nursing and having had a difficult early childhood herself, she had the life experience necessary to show my friend true empathy.

And, in retrospect, I can see that her stories needed to be told. It was time. My selfish behavior was the trigger.

Even though I regret hurting my friend I am, at the same time, grateful that I did, so that she could experience the grace and healing that comes when you tell a  painful story to someone who shows empathy.

My friend and I never discussed the conversation she had with my mother.

Yet it worked like a karate chop in cutting through my self-centered haze. I made an effort to modify my behavior and conversation.

Also, I very carefully tucked away her stories in my memory, thankful for the deeper understanding these stories gave me of my friend.

I guess the takeaway from this is that the people you are closest too probably have stories that they haven’t told you yet.

There might even be stories you won’t hear until you hurt them. Notice I said “until” and not “if.” Ouch.  And they might end up telling the stories to someone else instead and that’s OK.

Although let’s hope it won’t be as dramatic as that. Maybe they are simply waiting until they can tell you are ready to listen.


How listening is like Prozac

Yesterday I sat in a friend’s living room and, for a short time, the conversation focused on a painful experience in my life, one I’m not in the habit of talking about very often or in any kind of detail.

After listening to this story my friend said very sincerely, “I want you to know how sorry I am that you had those experiences.”

A few weeks previous, when I had touched on this same story very briefly, she said something like, “You’re my friend and I know you deserve better than what happened so, dang it, I’m angry on your behalf!”

These statements of empathy were moments and grace and healing for me.

You see, it’s not enough to be good at storytelling and expressing yourself.

It’s just as important, if not more so, to show empathy when others tell stories, particularly stories that are painful.

In his book The Instinct to Heal, David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., describes the BATHE technique of listening.

This technique was developed by two doctors as a way to quickly get to the heart of a patient’s story in a busy doctor’s office and also show empathy at the same time.

They have found that the BATHE technique works well outside the doctor’s office in regular conversation too.

Here are the steps:

B = Background. Ask the question, “What happened to you?” Listen with little interruption but don’t let the person run on too long and get lost in the details.

A = Affect. Ask the question, “And how does that make you feel?” This might be embarrassingly obvious but you’ll be amazed at what you learn.

T = Trouble. Ask the question, “And what troubles you the most now?” This is the most effective of the questions because it helps focus the mind of the person in pain.

H = Handling. Ask the question, “And what helps you the most to handle this?” That question focuses the attention on the resources around them that can help them to cope and take action.

E = Empathy. Sincerely express the feelings you experienced as you listened to the other person. This lets the person know that you have shared their burden for a few minutes. They will feel a little less lonely and a little less daunted. Usually a few simple words are enough, like those my friend shared with me.

And you know what? When you start listening to people in this way, you also care for yourself in the process.

You’ll experience healing as a listener because you’ll gain confidence in your ability to relate to others. According to Dr. Servan-Schreiber, this confidence protects you from anxiety and depression.

In other words, listening is like a form of Prozac. Pretty cool, huh?