Learning to Listen

English: The Active Listening Chart shows the ...

I remember the first time I realized I wanted to tell my stories, got angry and hurt inside when people wouldn’t listen, but wasn’t willing to listen to the stories of others.

Was that really me? Was I really that self-absorbed? That indulgent?

Did I think my stories were better? More interesting? Happened in more exotic locations?

The why was less important than the what – and the what was clear: I didn’t know how to really listen. I needed to learn, learn to listen to the stories of others. Give them the privilege and honor of recognizing their stories and their world as important. Listen to their stories, the narratives of their lives.

Ruth Van Reken, adult TCK and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds is the person who articulated for me the need for the third culture kid to learn to listen. I was at a conference and Ruth was one of the featured speakers. I was looking forward to hearing her, but was expecting the talk to be somewhat depressing. After all, this was the woman who wrote Letters I Never Wrote – a sort of memoir of her own life in boarding school in Liberia and beyond.

She was great. She was funny and engaged us from the start. It was a personal story she told that opened my eyes to the importance of not just telling stories, but really listening to the stories of others. She talked about working as a fairly new nurse on an Alzheimer’s unit.

She said it was a perfect fit for her as a third culture kid: she didn’t know who she was and none of her patients knew who they were.They were all in this identity crisis thing together, though not from the same root cause.

Ruth told a story of leaving work one day and running into another nurse in the parking lot. The nurse was completely out of breath, she was late for work. As Ruth realized how distraught this woman was, she began asking questions, This is where I lose track of the details but keep the main point of the story, for that was Ruth’s moment of change. She suddenly realized that she wasn’t the only one with a story, all the people she worked with had stories too.

They might not be stories that happened in Liberia or London or in an airport en route to a destination far away. But they were stories of life lived hard; of life lived with sorrow and joy, anger and drama.

I walked away from that session sobered and challenged. There were stories, stories that I hadn’t heard because of my TCK arrogance. Stories that were waiting to be told.

I began the hard work of learning to listen — not fake listening, framing my response before the person had finished their story, but active listening. Listening with my body, listening with my mind, and listening with my spirit.

I will always have to work at listening. And I still love telling my stories, I always will. But I’m learning that it is a privilege to walk beside people in their life story; an honor to be told a story in any language and any country.

How have you learned to listen to the stories of others? 

17 thoughts on “Learning to Listen

  1. A very gentle reminder, Marilyn of how we should “esteem the other” in our dialogues with others. Oh, the stories we miss when we fail to listen with genuine interest.


  2. This is a great post Marilyn! I always have to work at listening – but it so amazing how fascinating others are, when I just pay attention and LISTEN! :)


  3. Your right, Marilyn about learning to listen and practice. I love the chart you put at the beginning. During my first marriage I had to learn “active” listening which help in communication with my husband. It is something I’ve kept working on all these years. As a teacher, I found it vital to listen to my students…I found so many ways to help them learn in their preferred learning style and not the ones I would dictate to them. Many of us think our stories are dull and not worth telling to anyone. We love to hear the more exotic ones. Yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered there is wisdom and learning in each of our stories. Keep up the great work. I hope someday to meet you.


    1. I’d love to meet you as well Nancy. Isn’t the chart great? I actually copied it yesterday to put into a slide for a workshop I am doing at work. I appreciate your words on the importance of listening as a teacher. In a way it’s counterintuitive as obviously you’re there to teach, kids are there to learn – yet there’s so much that goes into learning and as you said, so many different styles of learning. One of the people I’ve learned a lot from is my husband – while he’s a talker, he also gets stories out of people who don’t often share. Interesting combination.


  4. This may my favorite piece you’ve written, Marilyn. (I say, or at least, think that a lot.:) ) I remember watching an Oprah show a few years back and she was interviewing a gentleman who had his own show, the premise of which was that everyone had a story to tell. He’d drive into a random town, choose a name, again randomly, from the phone book and call the chosed to ask if he could interview them. The stories were fascinating. And this was small town America. Oprah wanted to put his theory to the test so she had him throw a dart at her theater seating chart. The man it landed on was equally as fascinating. He was a refugee from Africa who had walked for weeks as a child to escape the killing and destruction in his home country, spent time in refugee camps before being brought to the US to study. He was now a doctor! I’ve said it a few times on my own blog. I complete agree with that guy and you! Everyone has a story! Have you read this one? http://www.foodlustpeoplelove.com/2013/03/glenys-chocolate-chip-pecan-biscuits.html


  5. Good words. A reminder that if we love people we will listen to their stories. Everyone has a story that is shaping their life, and since no one’s life is more important than another, we should give them the honor of listening. Good reminder too not to be arrogant about how “great” my story is.


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