We hear stories from people all day, every day.
But do we really listen to them?
There is a big difference between hearing, which is the natural biological process of hearing stimuli, and listening, which describes the thoughtful attention we give the stimuli. Listening is a skill we can develop and master.
If we want to improve the quality of our relationships with our parents, siblings, lovers, partners, children, and friends, we must learn how to not only hear the other but to actively listen in order to create deeper bonds.
Our lives are our stories.
Narrative therapy asserts that a person’s identity is essentially composed of the stories they tell themselves about their life and the world. By re-authoring their stories to a more positive, resourceful frame, people can change their self-perception and worldview, thereby improving their life.
Every time you tell a story, and every time you hear a story, whether it is about a mundane chore or something very personal, there is a deeper layer that alludes to wishes, dreams, fears, core beliefs, emotional bids, or other aspects of the psyche.
How can we listen to the deeper layers of stories?
For over 15 years, I have worked as a playback theatre conductor. Playback theatre is a form of improvised theater based on audience participants’ real stories. This gave me an opportunity to interview (and listen to) thousands of stories told by all sorts of people. As a conductor, I had to teach actors how to engage in active listening in order to find the heart of the story and to play it back (“Playback”) to the audience.
That experience paralleled my work as a couple and family therapist, where I learned how to go deeper and listen to the more profound layers of stories.
These two corresponding experiences helped me formulate a simple typology that I could teach my actors as well as my supervisees and clients.
The three layers of a story
Essentially, every story can be listened to at three different and overlapping layers: factual, emotional, and archetypal.
The factual layer: the who, what, when, and where of the story?
This is the layer that is usually the most explicit when we listen to stories. This layer is almost always present in day-to-day conversations, whether personal or professional, and requires a minimum amount of active listening.
The emotional layer: the feelings that were expressed
This layer relates to the feelings explicitly verbalized or implicitly hinted at in the story. This layer of the story is not always stated clearly and is more dependent on subjective interpretation. Although most of us can naturally listen for the emotional layer, oftentimes, tellers allude or don’t even mention the feelings they felt during the event. Developing an ear for the emotional can be beneficial.
Usually, in intimate conversations, we will naturally listen and react to these first two layers. This is wonderful and maintains intimacy and rapport, but there’s another layer that can leverage the conversation towards generative transformation.
The universal layer: what lies beneath
Underneath these two layers lies the third layer, which is the most universal or archetypal. This layer relates to the universal, primal symbols and images that derive from the human collective unconscious (such as mother, trickster, sage, warrior, and more).
When we actively listen to this layer of the story and look beyond the first two layers, we can often discern a core universal symbol, need, or theme (such as the universal need to be seen, the relationship to one’s father, or the wish to be free).
As a listener, there is a high probability you won’t share the same reality as the speaker. You might not own the same objects, live in the same area, or know the characters in the teller’s story. That could hurt your ability to be empathetic and innately feel what they are experiencing.
There is also a probability that you don’t share the same feelings the teller felt regarding their story. In fact, their story might evoke in you completely different feelings than what the teller felt. Again, that could sometimes lead you to be less empathetic and, in some cases, even somewhat critical or judgmental of the teller’s feelings.
When we are able to listen and discern the archetypal layer of the story, we meet a symbol, need, or feeling that we all know personally. That gut inner knowing helps increase empathy and enables a deeper and faster connection to those who share their stories with us and to ourselves.
The mysterious case of the efficient partner
A couple of weeks ago, a man told me in therapy how hard it was for him not to criticize his wife about her misplacing the scissors in the wrong drawer (factual layer). He explained that usually, when she misplaces things, he gets frustrated (emotional layer) and makes a snarky comment (factual layer).
Since I’m not an organized person, and I don’t mind misplacing things, I couldn’t empathize with the factual dimension. I could empathize with his emotional layer of frustration, but I wanted to connect to him on a deeper level.
I leaned back, broke eye contact, and searched for the universal level… What was this story really about?
And then it hit me: This is about perfectionism …
I gently shared this theme with him. He nodded, but it didn’t feel quite right.
Then I lingered a bit more in my reverie, and it came to me that perhaps this story is about…. efficiency: the need to always be ready for any situation and therefore to plan ahead.
I tried again.
I said that perhaps this story is actually about his need for efficiency and how he’s beginning to realize that this efficiency is hurting his marriage.
After I spoke, he smiled, took a couple of breaths, and said: “That’s it.”
His wife smiled.
I guess because she, too, knows the price of being overly efficient in intimate relationships.
In that moment, I connected to my own need to be efficient. I am a very efficient person and know firsthand the professional gains as well as the personal costs of being efficient in my own marriage.
We three sat in silence.
We shared a moment of rapport, empathy, mutual understanding, and respect. I didn’t need to say or do anything for him to feel that I was with him. It was a deep sense of communitas, that transient experience of togetherness that is accompanied by a liminal quality of ambiguity.
How can you train yourself to listen to the archetypal?
There are a few techniques that can help you dig deeper.
1. Choose when to listen.
Although there is always a universal layer in every story, you may not always be able, ready, or willing to listen to that layer. So choose when and with whom you want to go deeper.
2. When you listen to the story, ask yourself, “Beyond all the details, what is this story really about?”
And then go silent.
3. Let the story land in your body.
Break eye contact. Listen to your body. Notice your breathing. Let the story land. Notice any images, themes, metaphors, colors, or songs that come up for you. Oftentimes, they might initially seem completely unrelated to the teller’s story or energy. It might begin with an image, one word, even a sensation. Stay patient and let the idea float up to your consciousness.
4. Share the theme in a playful, curious manner.
Once a phrase, word, or movement comes up, and it feels relevant to you, then playfully share it. I recommend sharing it from a one-down position with comes across as less judgmental or critical: “You know, when you told me about your argument with your boss, I suddenly thought about the yearning to be free….”
5. Stay curious and see how it lands for them.
Stay open and inquisitive to see where the conversation goes. The storyteller might not identify with the theme you raised, or your thoughts and observations may lead to a deeper discussion of the primal truth of the experience. Alternatively, your input might even change the course of the talk, which can also add excitement and novelty to the moment. Whatever happens, you have shown interest and investment, and the conversation has become more collaborative, generative, and synergistic.
Over time, as you develop an ear for the archetypal, you will become a more involved and active listener. You will feel closer to those who share their stories with you and engaged in a more visceral way. You will enjoy more intimate, surprising, and touching moments. So, find the heart of the story and start shaping and reshaping the stories in your life and relationships.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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