The Most Selfless, Selfish Work

Since storytelling relies on story-listening, we’re spending some space here on the blog thinking about what it means to listen to ourselves, other people, and the wider world.

If we’re being honest, I would guess many of us spend most of our energy on our own side of the conversation, thinking of our own words and ideas, with less regard for the person on the other side of the table, or phone, or marriage.  We forget to make space for the words and ideas of others.  This has wide-reaching consequences for our connections to other people, but it also limits our resources for storytelling and for doing good work in the world.

In our roles as friends, professionals, neighbors, artists, entrepreneurs, or citizens, listening is crucial for tapping into the collective wisdom of our communities and serving them well.

For better or worse, Listening might be the most selfless selfish thing we could do.

When I ask people questions and give them room to answer, I’m allowing them space to sort life out.  Over the course of conversation, pain often gets smaller, dreams get bigger, loads get lighter, and life gets richer.

Listening to other people’s stories works out our empathy muscles.  It helps us to imagine or enter worlds other than our own. Good questions make room for storytellers and story-listeners alike to find the threads that hold us together.  They make space for us to form each other and be formed.

Here’s a few of my favorite space-making questions:

-“Have you learned anything new lately?”:  This is my favorite question to ask people younger than me.  They almost always have an answer and usually it’s something I need to learn also.

-“What hurts?”: Usually I know the people well enough to have an idea of what their answer might be in certain seasons but I have learned that some way or another, it’s a grace to offer people a moment to talk about hard things.  I might just ask “How are you?” and then wait for the answer they give after “Fine.”  In a professional environment, I might just ask someone about what’s difficult for them or what’s making their job harder than it needs to be.  The delicacy of this question is that the answers are hard to hear.  Of course, the flip side, is that the answers are even harder to bear when no one talks about them.

-“What’s keeping you alive right now?”:  This is an intense question but life calls for it.  I might soften it or let it take different forms. Either way, we all love the chance to talk about our favorite things.  This question could either lead us down a trail of shows on Netflix or new loves or cosmic truths.

Of course, these are just the beginning. The beauty of listening is that it makes far more room for possibility than any of us can find inside ourselves.

Rebel Pilgrim is a creative agency based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rebel Pilgrim believes that story is the only way to spark change and create excitement for any business or product. Start converting your uninterested crowds into engaged clients using the power of storytelling.