If you’ve read my earlier post, you’ll know that I set out on a new adventure that’s only slightly creepy! As part of an extra credit project, as well as my own curiosity, I made plans to set up a table and ask people to tell me their stories, so I can focus on listening, and they can get anything they want off their chest.
That was fun, and really cool at first, then once I lured people into my trap, it got quite awkward, and there were many many awkward pauses. It was a little painful. I was originally going to move my set-up to an area with an older general population to see if people would be more confident in telling their life secrets to a strange 19 year old, but that never really happened due to lack of time, funding, and accessibility to an leisure area for elderly without breaking into a nursing home.
SO, I compromised. I started with asking friends for stories. They already know I’m quirky and all, but randomly being asked to tell me a story like a little kid getting ready for bedtime was still a bit weird to them. Eventually, I got sweet little anecdotes of childhood memories that made my friends laugh a bit. It made me happy to see this light in their eyes. The stories were sweet, and I feel like everyone left the conversation feeling happier than before. It was still slightly awkward, but it ended well.
Next, I moved on to family. Instead of directly demanding stories though, I engineered our conversations with open-ended questions, hoping that they’d have to tell me long stories about their past. Luckily, I went to my grandparents’ house over the weekend, and I was able to listen to my grandma rave on about her working days, and her painting classes, and her education. For those of you who don’t know my grandma, she’s a badass in disguise. I love that woman so much. I could go on for hours about how cool I think my grandma is, but I’ll save that for another day. This is about stories after all.
I got my grandpa to tell me about all the homes he’s ever lived in. He ended up contemplating his movement in life, and how he really didn’t go far, yet his life is so different. His commentary was interesting. He’s generally not a very sentimental man, so hearing him speak his mind was very unique! That was such an awesome conversation.
Lastly, I asked my mom more directly, and she started talking about a fond childhood memory, and with every detail she remembered, she got more and more into it, until we both couldn’t help but to smile at the thought of it. She’d pause between thoughts, trying to think of what else to add on. The story was presented sporadically, with every new snippet adding more and more character to my mom’s childhood self, as well as her family at the time. It was strange to think of my mom as being a child once. She told me about hiding behind her dad when her family watched scary movies. I pictured myself doing the same as an adult woman. Why is it that parents seem so invincible to us? Why was it hard to perceive my mom as a child at one point?
And, no mom, I’m not calling you old, I’m calling you iron woman.
I pondered what it means to understand these perspectives of people in their present form and their past. It’s interesting to see what shapes them, and who they were versus who they are. How much do we truly change?
But back on track, I noticed from all of these stories, once the story teller got going, it seemed like there was this spark in his or her eyes every time. Perhaps it was because I was hearing mostly happy stories, or maybe people like to talk about themselves. It’s not often that someone makes a conscious attempt to listen to you, and just you. I liked to see their faces light up slowly. I’m glad I did this, and to be completely honest, I’m glad the ritual died down from an abrupt, demanding sign reading “TELL ME YOUR STORY,” to a gentle, subtle effort to hear others.
Originally, the project was intended to be a ritual, and overtime, it has become one. The simple art of listening has been incorporated in my awareness of life now.
Here are some tips I learned on becoming a better listener in daily life:
- Think about listening
Sometimes, I catch myself absolutely dominating a conversation with MY thoughts or MY stories or how that relates to ME. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. One sided conversations aren’t fun for anyone in the long run. I’ve been trying to combat this by making a conscious effort to ensure conversations are mostly balanced. In doing this, I’ve learned that some people need a little encouragement, and to make it equal, they need you to ask questions, or bring up things to spark their interests and motivate them to talk about themselves. All it takes is a bit of extra thought!
2. Cut off distractions
Especially on voice calls, don’t let yourself open up Facebook or turn on the TV. Even if you think you’re good at multitasking, you’re not going to give them undivided attention, and you won’t be as retentive to the information they’re providing you. Close your computer, put away your cell phone (unless that’s the medium), and isolate yourself from any potential distractions. Doing this leaves your mind opened for listening, and communicates that you’re interested, and willing to listen to others. People need that verification that someone wants to listen to them. Make them feel welcomed!
3. Eye contact!
I probably have the world’s most curious eyes, constantly wandering around to see every little bit of movement around me. This distracts you, and the person you’re talking to. Think of your eyes as arrows that point to what you’re most interested in the moment. If they’re plastered on your phone, your work, or your food, most people won’t even attempt conversation with you. If you only make eye contact with them when you speak, that’s communicating that you don’t care about them, and you might be a bit narcissistic.
This is when I start freaking out though. How much eye contact is too much?
Do I dead stare at them the entire time without blinking?
No, that’s too much. Don’t be creepy, Megan.
Well now I’m thinking about it, and it’s going to be awkward no matter what I do.
Focus on being natural, and if you know your inclinations (i.e., too much eye contact, too little, too jumpy…) make minor corrections until you feel comfortable with your level of communication.
Don’t overcompensate. That will be awkward for everyone.
4. Body language speaks louder than *most* words
If you want to have a good conversation with anyone, and you want them to know you’re interested, and you care, sit up straight, place your hands in a comfortable manner, and if you’re having a serious chat, lean in towards them.
My grandma is the master at engaging body languages. When her stories get intense, her tone changes, her voice gets softer, and she might even put a hand on your shoulder or elbow. When she does that, you know it’s getting real.
Simply by telling yourself you’re interested, your body will naturally be inclined to show it! If that’s what you need to communicate, fake it till you make it. Trick yourself into thinking you’re really enthusiastic about what the speaker did last Saturday. If you’re really good at it, you’ll truly become interested in the subject, and that’s mutually good.
Not that everyone secretly dreads hearing about others, but sometimes, we all find it hard to keep our eyes open while someone else talks about something seemingly irrelevant to you. We’ve all been there.
5. Actually focus on what they’re saying
Crazy, I know.
Luckily, you’re probably human, so you’re naturally going to express yourself when you’re feeling a certain way. Just immersing yourself into a conversation will get you half way there. Think of what they’re talking about, and even try to put yourself in their shoes. Showing empathy and asking questions is a great way to boost your communication skills.
So that’s my spiel on listening. I promise I’m usually not this creepy about social norms, but this has been a recent issue in my life. I’ve caught myself pondering my schedule, or daydreaming about kettle corn instead of completely opening my eyes and ears to the people around me. I want to fix it, so by stepping backwards to look at the big picture, I think I have allowed myself to move forward in progress.