Any time I lead an organizational or leadership storytelling workshop, I split folks into pairs and ask them to share a story with each other. Person ‘A’ goes first and Person ‘B’ is asked to simply listen without interjection. After the exercise, I ask everyone what they noticed about sharing and listening to the stories.
Based on what I’ve heard after facilitating this exercise hundreds of times, one of the most challenging parts is not telling the story, but listening without speaking. This makes a fair bit of sense: most of us have been culturally training to treat conversation like a tennis match. We listen primarily for an opening, a chance to return the volley, to share our own point of view.
What happens when we’re challenged to simply listen, to take in another person’s story without any agenda of our own other than being present?
Based on what I’ve heard and seen, what happens is empathy, compassion, and a bond that forms quickly and with unexpected depth.
According to Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, listening happens at four different levels:
*This article is an excerpt from the recently published book 'Story Maps: Wayfinding Tools for the Modern Seeker.' Enjoy!
I first came across the ‘iceberg’ as a metaphor during a session with my therapist over ten years ago. I had been grappling with the idea that the way I experienced myself was not at all how the world experienced me.
She nodded and drew a simple image on her pad:
Icebergs, she told me, are much larger than they appear. Only 10 to 20 percent of an iceberg is visible above the water. The rest lurks below, under the surface. The same is true of people. We only see what’s on the surface, people’s behavior and their actions in the world. There’s so much more beneath the surface, a whole world of emotions, thoughts, and feelings. What you’re describing, she told me, is a disconnect between the top and bottom of the iceberg.
The metaphor blew my mind and stuck with me.
A few months ago, I found myself meditating on the power of ritual and prayer. The iceberg came floating into my mind, but instead of focusing on the iceberg itself, my attention focused on the water around it. An expanded version of the metaphor emerged that resonated so strongly that I popped out of my meditation and scrawled it on a scrap of paper. Here’s what I drew:
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Utah with The Nomadic School of Wonder to learn from a herd of wild horses. They live at Windhorse Relations, an organization dedicated to providing care and stewardship of the horses, learning from them, and giving others the chance to experience the power of connecting with the herd.
On the first morning of the experience, the organization’s founder, Mary Lee Brighton, strode into the center of a round pen with a jittery horse named First Star. Mary Lee held a frame drum encased in a deerskin pouch. As she entered the pen, First Star’s eyes widened and his nostrils dilated.
Mary Lee explained that horses are prey animals. Anything unfamiliar represents a potential threat. Since the drum case, with its dangling tassles and odd jangly sounds, was new to First Star, he was understandably anxious.
She moved around the pen and First Star did everything he could to put maximum distance between himself and the drum case.
Over the next hour, Mary Lee worked with First Star, helping him conquer his fear of the threatening drum. In the process, she offered a master class not just in working with horses, but also in leadership.
Here are five lessons gleaned from the heart of the horse:
I recently attended a meeting that went something like this:
Everyone came in, many of them rushing, a few looking at cell phones. They sat at the conference table, laptops popped open. The person who’d called the meeting looked around, said ‘I think we’re all here,’ immediately threw a spreadsheet up on the screen, and started going through a bunch of numbers.
The attendees (I was there as an observer) scrambled to keep up. . .then they started asking a ton of questions about the spreadsheet. They questioned assumptions, tried to solve for problems that hadn’t been directly mentioned, and asked for additional details. The meeting-caller became increasingly flustered as the gathering spiraled out of control.
After 45 minutes, time was up. Laptops collapsed and everyone left. No action items, no real resolution. I wasn’t even clear what the intention of the meeting had been.
It didn’t feel so great. The meeting-caller, who happened to be my client, looked at me: ‘Please tell me there’s a better way to do that.’
Master storyteller and teacher Doug Lipman breaks a storytelling performance into four sections:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.