mind change

Moving from story-telling to story-listening

“Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener.”

As story experts, we believe that when it comes to talking about change, the most important story is not yours, it’s someone else’s. This is because people will only accept change when you give them a better story than the one they’re already telling themselves about why things are the way they are.

That’s why we’re making the case for story-listening  – the practice of listening to others’ stories.

Listening to others’ truths helps us understand each other, so only when we begin to create the space for these lived experiences to be heard can we begin to understand them and learn from them.

Ralph G. Nichols, a professor who studied the science of listening explained that “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood” and that “the best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

This is where ‘active listening’ comes in. It’s the practice of providing someone with your full attention when they speak, listening honestly and openly – withholding judgement and opinion. 

Otto Scharmer shows us that there are four levels of listening. We’ve broken them down to share with you how to listen in a generative way and why it helps your own stories and storytelling.

  • Downloading – When we simply download information, we’re doing so to confirm what we already know (skimming news to confirm beliefs, etc.) whilst being shut off to anything that might challenge this. 
  • Factual Listening – Unlike downloading, when we factually listen we are interested in hearing the information we don’t know yet. Whilst we’re focused and present to the information we neglect any emotions of the person speaking or the nuance of the conversation.
  • Empathetic Listening – Here we’re beginning to connect with the person speaking rather than just with the information that is being conveyed. Paying attention to others’ perspectives by exploring emotions and nuance is key to listening with empathy.
  • Generative Listening  – The most meaningful level of listening. By connecting the topics of conversation to the future, you are focused on improving on the present. This means any ego or bias has been dropped and a profound shift in thinking has been developed.
So, when you are listening to others make sure to:
  • Be open to new perspectives  Listen to understand, rather than to reply.
  • Play it back – Clarify and ask questions – this shows you are listening and prevents any misunderstandings.
  • Don’t interrupt – It’s important to refrain from dominating the conversation with your lived experience or perspective.

Thinking beyond the practice of story-listening to make space for others and their stories, there are many benefits to being a good story-listener.

Good leaders are often excellent listeners as well as storytellers, as they are able and willing to listen actively and with empathy. Listening is also a sign of self-confidence as it means you are willing to accept the best answer rather than sticking stubbornly to your own.

Whatever your motivation may be, strengthening your listening skills and setting the standard in your organisation will help everyone’s story be heard – including your own, and will make you a stronger and more empathetic communicator.   


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