Listening to the story I’m telling myself

Listening includes both verbal and non-verbal queues. Listening also involves building a story about what we are hearing and who we are hearing from. This story frames the August 2022 Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table and the Servant-Leader roundtables. The story is a quick read, with a little food for thought. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:


Story: Listening to the story I’m telling myself

As someone who does not see, listening is very important to me. Listening is how I ingest written materials (with text to speech technologies), maintain directional orientation while traveling, interpret the mood/feelings of those around me, regulate cooking temperatures, and so on.

Reflecting on my listening and interpretation practices is not new to me. In September 2016 I posted an essay on, “Listening to far away.” The essay focused on the layers of information I hear and how I make meaning of that information. When I listen to the layers of sound/information I receive, I make decisions about how many layers deep to focus. I know I can’t pay attention to everything. At some point, I must just let go and assume that what I’m hearing is out of scope. That is a practice that has saved me from chasing endless shiny things. It has also led me to overlook some great opportunities.

In that essay, I was looking through the lens of one-way communication. I didn’t really address the dynamic role of listening as an active engagement with others. Interactive listening is a component of communication. The definition of communication I have found most useful is: communication happens when a sender and a receiver agree on the message being shared. This definition might also be interpreted as listening takes place when the speaker is heard.

In more recent years I have found Brene Brown’s idea of “the story I’m telling myself” a touch point for making meaning, which involves many more moving parts than just listening. The story I build in my head involves listening, but it also includes conclusions I have made about the person/people I’m listening to, why they are talking to me, why I’m listening to them, what I think they want from me, and what I think I will learn from them.

Recently, my wife and I were walking, hand-in-hand, through a local park and came across a person sitting at one of the picnic tables. After exchanging greetings, the person said, “Can I ask you a question?” We have come to expect this question as an opening to a request for money. The person recognized my discomfort and said, “I’m not going to ask you for money. I was wondering how long you two have been together?” The person was very happy to see a couple who still holds hands after 33 years of marriage. I was ashamed that my default response was that the person wanted something from me that I was not willing to share. I had clearly told myself a story about stepping over boundaries. There is great potential for the stories I tell myself to stray a long way from the intended message.

I sometimes qualify a question with the phrase, “I’m asking because I want to know”. This is particularly useful when I am engaged in a topic that might be seen as controversial. The statement is a recognition of the fact that I have made assumptions about the person I am speaking to. It is also an acknowledgement that the person I’m speaking to may have made assumptions about me. It is another way of saying, “I am really interested in what you have to say.” It is also a commitment to listening thoughtfully, rather than to focus on an opportunity to share my position on the topic.

I regularly meet with a group at the intersection of disability and LGBTQ. The group is premised on the principles: come as you are, be who you are. One of the norms we have agreed upon is to make sure we are clear on the purpose of our conversation. Sometimes we are sharing our experiences, sometimes we are problem-solving, sometimes we are asking for advice, sometimes we are giving advice, and sometimes we’re just venting. All of these are legitimate forms of communication, and all are welcome in our conversations. We have gotten into the habit of asking before offering advice. The transparency of intentions has led us to more open, deeper, conversations.


Here are some of the questions I asked myself in the process of developing this essay:

  • How do I determine what to pay attention to when engaging with others?
  • How do I know I am really listening?
  • How do I know I am being heard?
  • How do I recognize the assumptions I make about the people I engage with?
  • How do I validate the story I am telling myself?
  • How do I let others know I am genuinely interested in listening?
  • How do we know we are really understanding each other?
  • How do I know what feedback to share with those I am conversing with?


Brene Brown’s web page provides a wide variety of resources. I found it after reading several of her books. Her writing is quite accessible. I especially enjoy the audio books she has read herself.


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