Monday, July 23, 2012

What makes a good story listener?

A correspondent was recently reading over old emails and found an answer I wrote to a question he posed about a year ago. He thought other people might find it useful, so he suggested I post it. The context was: my correspondent wanted to hire people who could collect stories, and he also wanted to hire people who could train people to collect stories. The question he asked was, "What makes a good story listener?" Here is what I wrote.

The first thing in finding people who can work with stories is that they have to think in stories. I used to think everybody did this but have come to the conclusion that it is like handedness: some do and some don't, and all points in between.

To explain what I mean: I am [was at the time] preparing a blog post that refers to an advertisement I saw in a magazine last week that had two juxtaposed photographs in it [it was this post]. I saw the advertisement and my eyes went straight to the photos, which I scrutinized heavily and got very excited about. There was some writing on the bottom of the page but I mostly ignored that. I brought the magazine to my husband to show him the exciting photographic juxtaposition. He completely ignored the photos and went straight to the sweepstakes scheme described, which to him was amazing. (After he explained it to me, it was amazing to me too, but I didn't notice it until he explained it.)

If I was hiring somebody to compare photographs, I'd hire me. If I was hiring somebody to evaluate schemes and plans, I'd hire my husband. So, you want people who notice stories the way I notice pictures and the way my husband notices schemes and plans.

It's almost like the world has many beings swimming around in it, but for some people whole species are transparent while others are solid. One person can see the stories perfectly but can't make out the opinions, and somebody else can see the opinions but the stories are just thin shimmers of light. If you watch people tell and listen to stories, you can tell pretty quickly whether they think in stories or not. Do stories come out of them all the time? Do they ask the kinds of questions that result in stories? Or do they ask other questions?

But I'm not sure about curiosity as it applies to story listening. I've known some incurious people who did a great job collecting stories, and I've met some curious people who couldn't let things flow. Listening to stories is a sort of yin skill, receptive not creative. Some of the best storytellers are the worst story listeners. I myself have to work pretty hard at listening, at least to people. With people I am always thinking of what I would like to say next. Strangely in nature I don't do that, maybe because I am more respectful and humble. That is why I was a better ethologist than cultural anthropologist. It is also why I like to work with stories other people solicited, because I can't rush in and ruin things.

I would say useful qualities for a story listener are patience, the ability to keep quiet and listen, the ability to observe and notice, the ability to build trust, the ability to help people feel safe to talk. Have you ever met a person who everybody tells them things they had not meant to say? I have met a few people like that, where I just spill things out because I can somehow feel they create good places for stories to come to rest. Stories flock to them. A good test is, when you talk to the person do you find yourself saying, I don't usually tell people this but... If you find yourself censoring your speech instead, that person is not going to be a good story collector. I would venture that everybody on earth can name a person stories gather round and a person stories keep a safe distance from.

So yin curiosity is perfect, but yang curiosity can ruin things by turning everything into an inquisition or probing experiment. Meaning, curiosity is useful if it means people can wait and see what unfolds. It is not useful if it means people can't stand to wait and try to force things through taking action. Great story listeners practice wu wei, or doing by not doing.

Also, rigor and punctuality can actually be quite useful because it can put people at ease: it communicates stability. I'd rather tell my story to somebody who is following a routine they know well than to somebody who might throw away the rules any second. Some of the best people who do oral histories are plodding sorts. Their arms are open, but not reaching.

So now, if you want to look for somebody who can train people to do that. I would say, all of that plus a strong ability to introspect. Because they have to know why what they do works, how to explain how it works, how to tell if other people are doing it, how to help other people do it, and how to help other people fix things when it isn't working. And also how to tell if people will not be able to do it and should give up and try something else.

To give an example, I've now taken three organized yoga classes. The second teacher was a dancer, and she seemed to assume we could all bend our bodies into pretzels. I got hurt trying to do what she did and had to quit the class. She probably didn't even notice. The third teacher was just learning yoga herself and, though she was enthusiastic and meant well, she only knew one way to do yoga. She didn't know why what worked for her worked or why what didn't work for any of us didn't. She was not that much better than a taped presentation.

My first yoga teacher, on the other hand, was amazing. She knew yoga inside and out, but most importantly she could look at anybody in the class, or place her hand on your arm, and know instantly how what you were doing was working for you or wasn't, and how to fix it so it did work. Sometimes I would be struggling and failing, and she could come over and make one tiny adjustment and suddenly everything would fall into place, and then explain why it fell into place so I understood. That was a great teacher. So, I guess a good trainer for story listening is good at story listening, and good at listening to the story of story listening. If that makes sense!

How would I engineer an interview to find such people? I would ask them to do this, over the course of ten or fifteen minutes:
  1. tell a few stories while I listen
  2. ask a third person to tell a few stories (and listen to them and maybe fill out a form)
  3. watch somebody else do what they did in step two
  4. talk about what happened in the first three parts
A person who is good for the job will be able to come up with insightful observations in all four sections:
  1. about their own stories
  2. about the stories they listened to
  3. about the stories the other person listened to
  4. about the whole process of telling and listening and its variations in the first three parts
If you go through that whole thing and the person doesn't notice anything, they aren't going to be able to listen to stories well or train anybody to do it well. Like my second and third yoga teachers, they will not know what is working and what is not, nor where to lay their hand to fix what is not working, nor how to explain why they laid their hand there then.

Of course that bar may be set too high, but you should be able to see differences among people by having them all do this. I have met people who would notice twenty useful things during that ten minutes, and I have met other people who would notice nothing. It's curiosity but of a particular flavor. A yang-curious person might not be able to wait until the end and would blunder in to force an outcome without producing understanding - like it was a machine to be fixed - but a yin-curious person would notice things that would help people improve their own skills.

As to resumes and curricula vitae, it's hard to tell. People write what they think they are supposed to write, which is generally not stories [Note: see the work of Kathy Hansen at A Storied Career for more on resumes and interviewing and stories]. I guess it would be useful to look for things they have done that show attention, patience, receptivity, noticing, yin-curiosity.

Watching. You want good watchers, and good watchers of watching.

As usual, hope it's useful! And thanks for the suggestion and the great question, correspondent!