Are you a good listener? I wasn't particularly. My favourite part of a heart-to-heart conversation was always the bit where I took over the talking and shared my incredibly wise advice... I only learned how to listen - to really listen - when I volunteered as a Samaritan. Their incredible training programme changed my life - and my relationships.
Anyone can become a good listener if you just know what to do. Watch my TEDx talk to learn how to listen better. It won't just deepen your connection with the people you love, it'll also help you to better understand and manage your relationships with the people you can't abide...
Here's the full transcript of my talk (minus the odd ad lib from the day!)
The Undervalued Art of Story-listening
by Charlotte Simpson, Independent Celebrant
Who doesn’t want to be a good storyteller? From marketers and Instagram influencers to anyone who’s ever had a minute in a lift to get someone’s attention; we all know the power of stories.
But… if every one of us in this room started telling a story right now, what would we hear?
A storyteller is nothing without an audience.
Our theme today is the Art of Connection. I believe that the sharing of stories lies right at the heart of human connection; but, as a species, we need two - equally important - skills to connect: we need to tell stories and hear them.
Sometimes the art is in the telling; sometimes it’s in the listening.
Today I want to talk about that under-appreciated group of people whose names we might never remember; not the storytellers - the Stephen Spielbergs, Maya Angelous and JK Rowlings - but rather the story-listeners. I’m going to explain how every one of us can become a better story-listener and why we should.
We are divided - not just here in Brexit Britain, but around the world. An international Ipsos MORI study last year found an unhappy trend of societies - across the globe - becoming more divided and less tolerant of difference.
But - thank goodness - we don’t have to follow trends. We can start new ones.
A few days after the 2016 US election, ten Trump voters and eleven Clinton voters spent a weekend together. Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? But don’t worry - they were safe in the soothing hands of a family therapist. On a mission to understand one another, and absolutely not to persuade anyone to their own points of view, the participants discovered something remarkable: they liked each other! They wanted to see each other again!
Building on that first meeting - the Better Angels movement was born. Now working across fifty states, Better Angels brings reds and blues together to learn about the values and experiences that inform each others’ politics.
In short - they hear each others’ stories. They ask each other: what has happened in your life to bring you to this belief? So often, once you know the full story, hostility melts away - to be replaced by empathy.
But it’s different with our friends and families. We understand them, don’t we? When it comes to the people we’ve shared food, holidays and Netflix with, surely we already know their stories...
There was a time - about twelve years ago - when my mum got into the habit of phoning me several times a week. She had just one topic of conversation. She needed to tell me - in meticulous detail - about a never-ending series of very specific IT problems.
I tried everything to help her. Everything. I asked her if she’d turned it off and on again… I asked her if she’d thought of phoning my brother - in fact I suggested a long list of people she could try asking who weren’t me. The calls persisted. Eventually I explained that, regrettably, I was unable to help on this occasion and I wished to unsubscribe from further updates.
Then I got on with my busy, busy, all-about-me, twenty-something life. I was working as a researcher - mainly for BBC Radio Four. I was low down in the pecking order but, nevertheless, every day I got to phone up world-class leaders and experts and pick their brains. When I was speaking to distinguished people with important stories to tell, I was all ears...
I know. I don’t come out of this well…
My favourite phone calls actually weren’t with experts and celebrities at all. They were with real people.
Their names haven’t stayed with me but their stories have: the Auschwitz survivor, so full of hope and love for future generations; the elderly nun who’d seen her best friend gunned down in front of her in the Brazilian rainforest - because she wouldn’t stop protesting against illegal logging; the mother who took her own son to Dignitas.
I loved these conversations. I barely spoke, but I listened like mad. I’d type notes at lightning speed, trying to get everything down so I could write up detailed briefing documents for on-air interviews.
And there was something else going on in these intense research calls… It often felt like we’d built an intimate connection. Sometimes, as I rounded off the call and thanked them for their time, the person I’d interviewed would cut in: ‘No. Thank you. It’s been good to talk.’ They sounded surprised, relieved, unburdened…
It felt nice - like I was helping in some small way. But there was something missing. I was almost helping people - but not quite. Because my primary motivation was to make great radio. I was just using these inspiring people as a means to an end. And that felt a bit dirty.
So I decided to do something more worthwhile in my spare time - to balance things out. I signed up as a volunteer Samaritan. The Samaritans is a brilliant charity with a simple mission: to support anyone who’s in emotional distress. At the heart of its service is its free 24-hour, confidential helpline - a lifeline for anyone who just needs to be heard.
That short period of time working for the Samaritans changed my life.
Three principles from their brilliant training programme have stayed with me. They’ve had such an impact on my relationships that I want to share them with you. So here goes:
1) Listen actively
Pay attention to what’s being said and what’s left unsaid. Encourage and prompt. Ask open questions. Sometimes you don’t need to even ask a question. Just allow this person their moment of silence. Don’t jump in.
You also have to show you’re listening. Nod, make eye contact - repeat back - in your own words - what you’re hearing.
Reassuring the speaker that you’re not about to hijack the conversation and steer it in a direction that suits you - puts them in charge. It gives them the space and the confidence to go deeper; to share the stuff that’s hardest to talk about.
For example if your mother wants to talk about a problem with her computer, you could listen - ask questions - and not try desperately to change the subject.
OK, number two:
2) Focus on Feelings
Samaritan volunteers help callers move beyond the facts of their situation to explore how it’s making them feel.
‘How do you feel?’ It’s such an important question. When you ask someone how they’re feeling, you show them they matter; that you care about their life; and that whatever they’re feeling, it’s OK.
For example, if your mother keeps trying to tell you how frustrated an ongoing IT problem is making her, you could respond to the distress in her voice and empathise with her feelings, rather than trying to solve the technical issue when you know - and so does she - you’re a technological halfwit!
OK. Number three:
3) Don’t judge!
Samaritans always withhold judgment and they don’t give advice. I struggled with that one. I mean my advice is pretty wise… But giving advice is a way of taking over someone else’s story. Making it all about you.
If you want to help someone who’s in distress: let them do the talking, help them get their stories out - at their own pace - and reflect on their own actions. How you feel about their decisions is not what’s important here.
If someone feels judged, they’ll become defensive. They’ll clam up. That beautiful opportunity for connection is gone.
For example, if you make your mother feel her experiences are trivial, eventually she’ll find someone else to confide in. Or she won’t confide in anyone…
This is all hard work; I get it wrong all the time. And of course you can’t act like a Samaritan in every human interaction. If you’re trying to get a local builder to give you a quote for loft insulation, insisting on talking about emotions and refusing to discuss facts would make for a surreal conversation.
But knowing how to be present for another person feels more relevant than ever today - as every couple of minutes we get a little bleep in our pockets, tugging our attention away from the living, breathing people in front of us.
I think it was soon after a Samaritans training session that Mum next phoned. She’d had that error code again. Finally - at long last - the penny clattered to the ground.
That little switch from facts to feelings changed everything. Mum only needed five minutes and she was done! But she had to tell her story to get past it and talk about other things.
I don’t work for the BBC anymore. I’ve finally found a creative path that lets me be there for other people. I’m a celebrant - a professional story-listener.
We celebrants design personalized ceremonies to mark major events in people’s lives. Most often I work on weddings and funerals but a celebrant can find words and rituals to help you mark anything from the loss of a beloved pet, to the creation of a new, blended family.
One of the most humbling and privileged parts of my work is spending time with bereaved families. I walk into people’s homes in the aftermath of an earthquake. In living rooms and kitchens piled high with cards, flowers and lovingly-cooked casseroles no-one’s got the stomach to eat, I sit - listening. My cup of tea goes cold.
Spending all this time with the bereaved gives you a unique insight into family relationships. When we’re putting together a eulogy, even in the most loving of families, there are often huge gaps where no-one really knows how years or even decades were spent.
There are questions. Unexpected emotions. An overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
Death robs you of your power to connect. Now is the time to improve your relationships.
So this is the crux of my talk. Follow those three Samaritans tips - with your friends, your family, the stranger on the bus who won’t let you read in peace, the keyboard warrior who hates everything you believe in…
Just try it. It’s one of the kindest things you can do for someone - to really hear them.
We can’t all be famous raconteurs, novelists or filmmakers, but every one of us here today can become a story-listener.
Listen to stories that aren’t told by experts. Coax out stories that have been hidden for decades. Once you get good at it, it can be your superpower.
Connection - when it happens - can transform the most intractable of situations. It might help you heal tensions and conflicts that have been festering in your family for years. It could bring you a longed-for intimacy with your child, parent or sibling that you didn’t realize was even possible.
Maya Angelou famously said: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
So, later on today or tomorrow or whenever you next have a moment with somebody who matters to you; ask a question. Hear the answer. Ask another. Hear the story.
I gave my talk on June 16th, 2019 at the Bollington Arts Centre - at Bollington's first ever TEDx event - curated by Sara Knowles. Huge thanks to Sara and to our speaking coach, Andrew Thorpe, as well as all of the sponsors and volunteers who made the event happen and the other seven speakers who made me realise I needed to up my game and actually learn my script!