Listen First

The most terrifying people in the world are 7th & 8th graders. I know this from first-hand experience because I used to teach 7th & 8th grade band. Teaching 60+ kids in your classroom at once after handing them noisemakers is like a scene out of Hurt Locker. One stray fart noise and it’s all over.

As a band director, one of my jobs (other than counselor, disciplinarian, parent, teacher, psychologist, custodian, psychic, doctor) was to listen and respond to what I heard the band play. In order to respond with constructive feedback I had to listen obsessively. My ear would be tuned in to every note, rhythm, instrument group & specific student.

I might have come to class with a prepared idea of what we would cover. But once I got there and listened, I often had to scrap my plan. In fact when I ignored what I was hearing and stubbornly stuck to my plan, things got worse and more tedious.

I find similar things true in storytelling. When we approach a story with a planned message, sometimes we miss the bigger story. In the church we often approach our stories with a theme in mind. But our idea of what the story should be can put up blinders to what a person is actually saying.

If our goal is to make a connection with the audience, as storytellers we need to do the hard work of connecting with those stories ourselves. On a production timeline/schedule, there is a real danger in treating a person’s story as another cog in the wheels of your machine. When you prioritize people above your final product, you become a good steward of the story being shared.

Listening is an attitude. The principle of "listen first, talk second” is something we must adopt if we want to connect with people, especially people who are pouring out something difficult they have walked through. When we meet them over a meal, when we walk into an interview; this attitude will help us love and guide people through sharing.

Listening is also a skill. It takes practice and discipline to get out of production mode and engage in the slow and winding road of listening. Unfortunately, we have become worse at listening. We want people to hurry up and get to the point. Give me a soundbyte. Keep it under 140 characters. Because of the way we have become wired, listening needs to be developed. It takes patience to do it well. Practice with your spouse, with your co-workers, with the person in line at Starbucks.

When you listen carefully you can begin to hear between the lines of what someone is saying. You’ll start to ask better questions and tell better stories.

Eric Walley is a filmmaker, photographer and serves as a leader of the WoodsEdge Story Team.  Visit his website.