5 Times in Your Life You Really Need to Be a Better Listener

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“Stories don’t describe our lives, they shape our lives.” That’s the mantra Murray Nossel, Ph.D., lives by—and the one he’s spent 25 years sharing with others. It’s also the central theme in his new book Powered by Storytelling (Amazon, $18), which is ostensibly a business guide, but is full of insights that apply to all aspects of communicating with other people in the world. One of the biggest: that listening to other people’s stories is just as important as telling your own.

Nossel suggests thinking of listening like a bowl, and storytelling as the liquid filling that bowl. “Both give shape to each other,” he says. A conversation you have with one friend could be totally different than a conversation you have with another—even if you’re talking about the same thing. That’s because conversation is two-way street. “Every interaction is an opportunity for something new and surprising to occur,” says Nossel, who began his career as a clinical psychologist in South Africa, then received a Ph.D. in social work at Columbia University and began working at an AIDS clinic. “I realized when my patients told me stories about what happened to them, I learned a tremendous amount about who they were, what their values where, and how their experiences shaped their lives.”

And yes, there’s a right way to listen, Nossel says. Start by ridding your environment of obstacles—put your phone away, handle any outstanding distractions, and focus. Then, sit back and listen without judging, criticizing, or interrupting. That’s really all there is to it.

Here, five times you should put your listening skills to work.

1. When helping a friend get through a hard time.

If you’re talking to a friend who’s recently endured something challenging—like being laid off from their job or missing out on an opportunity they were counting on—be sure to ask them to explain what happened in their own words. Doing so can help you better understand what they’re going through—and how they’re reacting to it.

Nossel gives the example of someone who was laid off from a company where he’d worked for many years. He asks, “What story is he going to tell himself about what’s happened to him?” Is he going to frame the lay-off as a positive—a chance to go on that trip he’d always dreamed about, an opportunity to throw himself into a passion project, a learning experience? Or is he going to feel unlucky—like the world is against him, or like his life is falling apart?

According to Nossel, the former can make someone feel empowered, whereas the latter can make them feel very, very disempowered. So listen carefully to get a sense of how your friend is feeling. It’s completely natural for them to be disappointed or have mixed feelings, but pay attention to the way this event is informing their story. Is it a setback on a journey toward great things? Or is it a defeating blow that they don’t know how to bounce back from?

If they’re approaching the obstacle positively, encourage them to keep going. If they’re feeling overwhelmed with sadness or disappointed, ask them more questions to see how you can best support them.

2. When you’re arguing with your partner.

Disagreements happen in any relationship. And when they do, there’s an opportunity for concerted storytelling and listening, Nossel says.

According to Nossel, vague, emotional statements can be harder to relate to than actual facts. So asking your partner to give you a step-by-step account of what happened—while showing them you’re willing to listen—can help you work through the conflict and avoid unnecessarily escalation.

Example: Let’s say your partner is frustrated because you’ve let the dishes pile up in the sink—again. (It happens.) Take a second and listen to your partner. If they say something like, “You’re being impossible again,” or “You always do this,” ask them to walk you through what specifically happened and to refrain from using opinionated statements wherever possible. It’s easier to respond productively to “You didn’t do the dishes” than “You’re impossible,” don’t you think?

3. When you wish you got along better with your coworkers.

Nossel believes businesses are at their best when staff members get along—and when they feel empowered to share their ideas. “People are at their most productive when they feel like they’re all on the same side and working toward the same thing,” he says. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a manager or an entry-level employee; anyone can be a catalyst for workplace change.

If you’re a manager, Nossel recommends establishing a regular meeting dedicated to storytelling and listening. During this time, you could prompt employees to talk about what led them to this job, why they pursued this industry, and what ideas they have for the company. And if you’re an entry-level employee, you could simply set up coffee dates with people you’d like to know better. You might not have the power to organize team-wide meetings, but you can still make your workplace more welcoming and learn a lot by listening to different people’s experiences.

But “don’t expect this to happen in the elevator or at the water cooler,” Nossel warns. Meaningful storytelling and listening requires more than just a few minutes of your time.

4. When you’re interviewing someone for a job.

A resume can give you the basics of someone’s employment history: where they’ve worked, how long they’ve been there, and so on. But it doesn’t do much in the way of communicating that person’s story. How did they end up in their current position? What inspired them to pursue this industry in the first place? If they took time off, why did they do so, and what did they spend that time doing?

In his book, Nossel shares the story of a woman working in pharmaceutical research. When asked to give a sales presentation about a medication she’s been working on, the woman does more than spew facts and figures. She talks about her own father, who spent years working as a doctor in China before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Eventually, her father had to stop practicing medicine, but if he’d had the drug she’s been developing, he could have continued to see patients. In fact, he could potentially still be treating them now.

Stories like this can tell you much more about a person—about their passions, motivations, and work ethic—than a piece of paper ever could.

5. When you disagree with, well, anyone.

When Nossel was working in South Africa, he administered a storytelling class to a group of men and women. Some of the women in the group began crying while sharing their stories, and Nossel says one of the men responded by saying, “This is the problem with women—they are so weak, so emotional.” Before too long, the group was uproarious. So Nossel interrupted to ask the man to share his story.

The man spoke of his childhood—he started looking after the family’s livestock at 5 years old. When his sisters were sent to school, he was left in the pastures; when his sisters were given shoes to wear each day, he was left barefoot. He eventually reached the conclusion that women were weak and men were strong—an undoubtedly contentious statement, but one the women were able to better understand after hearing his story.