4 Tips for Listening to Stories for Your Business

Two critical listening behaviors are: Giving your total attention to the person who’s telling you a story and not interrupting the flow of the story as it’s being told to you, even if it’s unclear or the details seem out of order. Here are a few more listening tips:

Stay away from disrupting the story

“Most conversations are just alternating monologues. The question is, is there any real listening going on?”
— Leo Buscaglia, author and lecturer on human potential

Most conversations are monologues. You aren’t really listening. You’re usually caught up in what you’re going to say in response. To truly be present in the moment, you need to quiet this internal chatter.

You also need to put down your pen or stop clicking away at your keyboard as you listen to the story part of a conversation. Note taking can also be a huge distraction to the teller of the story. Immerse yourself in the total experience of the story.

Listen delightedly

Storytelling coach Doug Lipman calls the type of listening we’d like you to engage in listening delightedly. To listen delightedly (when you’re in person or even when using Skype or FaceTime), do all the things we’ve mentioned so far, plus the following:

  • Make eye contact (unless this is culturally unacceptable).

  • Lean in towards the person.

  • Display genuine interest in your body language and facial expressions.

  • Express emotions as appropriate (laughter, sorrow, and so on).

  • Don’t fill the pauses with words, unless it’s to say, “Go on” or “Tell me more.”

  • Use gestures, like hand movements, that encourage the person to continue talking.

What about when you’re on the phone? Picture the other person in front of you. Don’t you dare put yourself on mute so you can multi-task. You’ll soon tune out, and the other person will know it.

Respond after you’ve finished listening

Let’s first talk about what you shouldn’t do right after someone tells you a story:

  • Launch into your own story.

  • Say, “I understand what happened. If I was in your shoes, I would have done it this way ….”

  • Offer advice on what to do next.

In each case, you’re shifting the conversation back to being about you. And you’re subtly undermining the other person and inducing one-upmanship.

Instead, express some form of appreciation. It can be as simple as saying, “Thank you for sharing your story with me.” If you feel inclined, you may want to add an empathic statement.

Maximize meaning and value

You’re not done listening yet. There are several more steps in the process of empowering those you’ve evoked stories from to feel that they engaged in a great conversation.

Ask reflective questions

Reflective questions (or statements) allow you to make and gain meaning. It follows that instead of asking information questions that get you concrete facts, you need to ask questions that get at the meaning of the story for the person telling it. Here are some examples of reflective questions/statements:

  • What do you like about that story (experience)?

  • What do you like about how you told the story to me?

  • What does that story (experience) mean to you?

  • What did you learn from that experience?

  • What are your takeaways from that story (experience)?

Asking those questions/statements will help you quickly learn more about the person’s motivations and view of the world and what the individual values and cares about.

Give appreciation

Now is your chance to provide the teller with positive feedback about his/her willingness to share and the experience you just heard about. Tell the person

  • Something you liked about the story.

  • What the story means to you.

  • How the story affected you.

  • Parts of the story that stand out in your mind.

This sort of positive appreciation continues to make the teller feel good — an important piece of empowerment.

Keep in mind that launching into appreciations before asking reflective questions interrupts the meaning-making process on the part of the storyteller. When you start signaling what made the story meaningful for you, they will validate that instead of telling you what the story means to them first.

Ask clarifying and information questions (optional)

If you feel a strong need to do so — and if there’s time — ask any clarifying and informational questions you might have. Examples include: What were the names of the people again? When did this happen? Where were you again? This is also where you might paraphrase a portion of what you heard that you want to emphasize or gain more details about.

Thank them again

This is an important step to remember because of all the person has shared with you.

Share a story in return (optional)

If the time and situation are right, go ahead and share a story in return. Do so in a manner that continues the dialogue rather than engaging in a one-sided conversation.

Once the story-sharing experience has ended, it’s time to maximize the meaning and understanding you gained from the story. Find a quiet place where you can jot down a few notes about what you’ll take away from it.

  • Note what it was like to listen in this way. How do you feel now about the experience, what happened, and the person who told it?

  • What insights have you gained? Especially if this experience occurred with a customer/prospect, write down everything you learned about the individual and the situation — demographics, likes and dislikes, challenges, solutions, and the opportunities before you.

  • What material did you hear that validated what you already know?

  • What material did you hear that was new to you?

  • Capture all the visual language you heard, including images that stand out. Note metaphors and analogies that can be leveraged in in marketing and communication materials, product/service offerings, and so on.

  • Record how to apply the knowledge you gleaned from the experience.

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