Listening Beyond the Story

When listening to someone, see if you can do something quite different than what people normally do. Take a step back (internally). Don’t focus on the “story” so much but rather – pay close attention to the person speaking. Hear and respond to who is speaking, how they are presenting themselves, the language, the feeling you have from being in their presence and ask yourself “what are they really saying to me that is beyond the words”. Look past the words and immediate “issues” into the heart of the bigger picture. In the movie Avatar, the Navi had a saying “I see you” to meant to convey that they say the whole being, or essential nature of person, and not just the topic of immediate concern. Who is this speaking to me? What kind of life have they had? What kind of childhood did they have? How has life wounded them? What do they “light up” about? What are they passionate about? Who are their ancestors? All of these things and more are fully present in an moment if you just look and are open to it.

Of course, you cannot see very much if you are not present with your experience. If you are judgmental or have some personal agenda and are mindful, you will notice that this is going on for you. That’s actually very good. Just notice it. “Ah, I really want this person to like me”. Or “I really have an reaction to the language they use”. That’s excellent mindfulness. Just notice that but your attention on them. Looking at them as person that is standing in front of you know that has years and years of experience and history and untold stories you could never find the end of. Are they happy? Are they hopeful? Are they bitter, angry, caring, loving? Who the heck is this person ?

When you’re really with someone like this, a sense of spaciousness is present. You don’t feel pressed to do anything in particular making it easier to explore this space without pressure. There is a sense of bearing witness, and simply being in a state of loving presence with another person. There is no sense that you are to solve a problem, or change someone. A natural curiosity usually arises that is much deeper than “what happened next”. Instead it is more along the lines of a simple, natural, emergent, caring and authentic curiosity. Who is this person? How deep does it go? And often, there is an appreciation and caring for something you noticed. After all, we all share the human experience and that is a great deal indeed.

When you engage people in this way, it changes everything. The conversation is entirely different as you don’t need to shine the light on yourself or say “that’s reminds of the time I …..”. Instead, you are more than happy to let someone talk and have the spotlight if they need it. All the while, looking for the deeper parts of their message. You may notice how passionate they are when talk about their work or their relationships. How much it means to them to get something right, or work something out. Rather than problem solve you can just say “you seem to care a lot about getting it right”. And wow. When someone is seen like that and contacted so authentically, and non-judgmentally, the entire situation can be elevated. The relationship changes. Both of you can let down and bit, becoming less defended. And now you have intentionally created the conditions necessary for greater intimacy and connection.

So in your practice. Try this, when talking to someone you care about or would like to know better, when you have a mindful moment, ask yourself “who is this person, really? What’s it like to be them”  and listen deeply for the messages they are sending about their world. Listen closely to the whole person. They are speaking to you loud and clear in their body language, use of words, content, accent, pacing, age, race, gender, health, emotional state, beliefs, fears, concerns, passions – all of this and more are telling you so much more than the words spoken.

Doing this you have created the opportunity for grace and loving presence to enter into your moment. (More accurately, you have chosen to be present to the grace and loving presence that is already there). What a tremendous gift to yourself and the world.


In a recent class, student had the most beautiful insight I’d like to share with you. In the exercise, listeners were asked to practice listening beyond the story as described here. Afterward, he explained how he had felt all this cultural stuff come up in him listening to an older person that had the same ethnic heritage as his. And he discovered the speaker was not at all like his pre-conceptions. He summed it very nice with “to give up someone else’s story, I have to also give up mine”.


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