Back in early January, I had an eye-opening experience deep out in the New Zealand bush (translation: thick forest). Unlike most of my eye-opening experiences out in the bush, which usually pertain to the wonder of nature and the incredible intricacies of it all, this one was firmly rooted in the human experience and highlighted the importance of deep story-listening.
I was tramping with my father and sister in Te Urewera, one of New Zealand’s most incredible regions of natural beauty. We were staying in a backcountry hut managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC), and sharing our accommodations was a local man named Ron.
Ron was self-described as a “professionally retired” farmer, a life-long hunter, and he hated DOC with a vengeance. He was staunchly against the use of 1080 poison (sodium fluoroacetate), which is used across New Zealand to manage introduced predator species such as possums, rats and stoats. The use of 1080 is highly controversial in New Zealand, with critics opposing it on the grounds that it results in a slow and painful death, and the fact that it sometimes kills non-target species including native birds, deer, dogs, insects, reptiles, and fish. Supporters contend that, while not perfect, 1080 is the only fast, practical, and cost-effective means of controlling the predator species that prey upon New Zealand’s native bird species, 80% of which are endangered or in some form of trouble. (Note: This is not a story about 1080. Please don’t start a debate in the comments about the merits or dangers of 1080 use. That’s not what we’re here for.)
As a former DOC employee involved in conservation and predator control (albeit through trapping), I found myself reacting strongly to some of his claims which I considered ludicrous and unfounded in modern science — for example, that possums introduced from Australia don’t really do much harm at all to New Zealand’s environment, and that the ecosystem will look after itself… Hmmmm. Despite my skepticism, I chose to listen with curiosity and empathy. I can see both sides of the 1080 argument and am not staunchly committed to a position either way, yet my historical association with DOC and my associated narratives saw my subconscious walls going up. I didn’t mention to Ron that I was a former employee of his hated foe, but even as he asked me with a side-long glance what I thought of our current prime minister, I could see he was sizing me up to decide whether I was with him, or against him.
As he spoke, it was clear that he was coming from a place of passion and anger, but more importantly, a place of grief for what he had lost over the past 40 years of hunting and farming.
He had watched the decline of many of our native birds over the years, and had witnessed hunting dogs who had consumed 1080 writing in their final death throes. He had seen livelihoods affected as families who relied on hunting deer for a source of sustenance experienced a decline in deer numbers after a 1080 drop.
After a while, we shifted the conversation to regenerative agriculture and there we found some common ground. He told me of the work he had undertaken on his kiwifruit orchard, in which he used only biodynamic methods of farming. Within three years of conversion after taking over the orchard, he had been out-producing his commercial neighbours who used conventional fruit growing methods, and boasted one of the lowest fruit rejection rates from sorting and packing sheds in the region. In turn, I relayed stories of some of the farmers, scientists and advocates I had been talking to recently in my research in developing a series of articles on the regenerative agriculture opportunity for New Zealand.
As Ron felt my open response and enthusiastic listening to his story, and heard stories from me that derived from a similar set of values, he visibly softened. He looked me in the eye more frequently, dropped his shoulders, and spoke with less of an edge in his voice. From there on in, he seemed more open to the things I had to say, on all topics.
By identifying common threads in the respective narratives that guided our thoughts and actions, we nurtured a mutual safe zone that allowed each of us to be heard. From there, our stories fell onto more receptive ears.
Finding shared narratives can enhance our mutual understanding of complex challenges and the people involved. When individuals hold strong views driven by such a place of raw emotion, counter-arguments to their viewpoint only serve to solidify their narrative. Anyone who provides an opposing narrative becomes the villain in their own hero’s journey, the force to be overcome.
Storytelling is a collaborative relationship between two parties — the teller of the story, and the receiver. When we think of in-person storytelling, we assume that the person telling the story is the one who is in control, but the listener or receiver of that story holds great power. With all our imperfections and underlying doubts, imposter syndrome, and our striving to be relevant in a world overwhelmed by content, story-listening in a way that invites the storyteller to go deeper is a true gift. It helps us to value collective knowledge, to understand much more than we could possibly know from our own experiences alone.
Yet it is a real skill to listen authentically, resisting the urge to be already formulating your response in your head, triggered by things that the other person is saying. So often when someone is telling a story, we are filtering the words through a set of assumptions, values, and preconceived notions of who this person is, their social standing, authority, or supposed legitimacy to tell that story. We are looking for cues or reading between the lines to decide whether someone broadly agrees with us or not. To identify if they are one of us, or one of the others. My frustrations around the damage that this sort of othering is collectively doing to us is neatly summarised in my poem, A Cure for Them, below.
I saw a lot of othering during my time working in politics, when the pressures of a fickle voting public, frustrated with the pace of change in government, resulted in politicians falling back on lazy narratives about the opposition. To my dismay, I observed in some MPs using the same tired old stereotypes and thin, one-dimensional narratives to describe the motivations of other parties or members. This from the people we have elected to work together to solve complex, multi-layered, and interconnected challenges to ensure that the country is thriving in all senses. The lack of grace and humility from those who were privileged with such a crucial role in our democracy shows just how much we need to practice, celebrate and normalise the art of story-listening.
When we really and truly listen to someone’s story, we ignore all those filters and lenses, and relegate ourselves to a place of knowing nothing. Assuming nothing, we elevate the storyteller to the role of expert, viewing them as the ultimate authority on their own life. When sit with the discomfort of silence, threads of story emerge that wouldn’t see the light of day in rushed conversation. When we listen intently, we open the way to more than just an intellectual understanding of another person’s point of view, to gaining a much deeper awareness of the human emotions, values, and series of experiences that led to that view. We aren’t looking for a preconceived answer or forgone conclusion, no matter how similar the story might sound to another one we’ve heard before.
Receiving someone’s story without applying any of your subconscious filters allows stories to exist in their pure form — in all their messiness and often incomplete; they aren’t good, or bad — they just are. The goal of true story-listening is to listen intently and without judgement or praise.
Outside of facilitated group processes or communities of interest, there is very little focus on active story-listening in today’s world. For deep and genuine story-listening to occur, a clear process needs to be set and followed to provide the type of environment where people feel safe. Certain rituals, rules, or expected group or community behaviours can create a sacred space between the storyteller and the story-listener, that when respected they support a culture of rich storytelling. It is a model of deep listening that we see in collective group processes such as those promoted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes, carefully designed retreats, bible study groups, women’s or men’s circles, or other situations that provide space for dialogue, reflection, and the sharing of experience.
But most of us no longer sit around in circles facing each other in all our human glory and imperfection. We just hurl insults at each other on social media, shouting past each other until we are red in the face at the audacity, the gall, the supposed stupidity of “those other people”.
After any kind of deep story-listening work, the narratives of both parties may emerge differently. There is a new richness in understanding between the parties involved. The act of listening from neutral ground legitimises the story in the other person, helps them to drop their armour, and to be more open. Like any new or unfamiliar practice though, the act of story-listening is a muscle that needs to be flexed. It requires a conscious decision not to fall into old patterns, and follow heuristic pathways to jump to conclusions. We need new 21st Century ways of authentic storytelling and active story-listening that allow for us to find common ground. If you have come across such models in your work or personal life, please feel free to drop me a comment below.
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This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, you can sign up to my newsletter. Thank you!