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On the number 1 train

I wonder what threads you may have woven together from the vignettes I presented in my previous blog. What colours and textures might that tapestry display?

Perhaps you took another look through my website to gain more insight. Perhaps you simply let your imagination wander and meander. But I don’t want to keep you in suspense any longer. I have decided not to provide you with a boring overview of the topics we might delve into. Instead, I’ll dip my hand into the bucket and just pull out one theme at a time. It might even be just a fragment that’s worth exploring.

Let me begin with a brief story of an encounter on the subway in New York City some time in 2013.

The number 1 train is empty enough that I can get a seat at 66th Street, where I get on with my guitar in hand. The participants in the Narativ Masterclass just finished their final performance where I played a piece on my guitar as part of preparing the audience for an evening of listening to stories. Two hours later, my body and my listening feel full with rich and colourful personal stories. I’m about to close my eyes when a woman with short grey curly hair, dressed in flowing black pants and a short and light multi-coloured jacket sits down beside me. She’s pointing at my guitar that I’m holding between my legs, “You play guitar?”

Martina's classical guitar
My guitar, bought in 1976

I look up - at her, at my guitar, I smile and nod. “Classical guitar, “ I say. Her eyes pop wide, and her voice quivers a bit when she tells me her husband’s story. He is a clarinet player waiting for a lung transplant. Tears are trickling down her face, yet without pausing, she shares with me that her 30-year-old son has moved back with her because he doesn’t know how to deal with his diabetes on his own. “What are you supposed to do?” she asks and continues on the same breath, “and, my best friend–I’ve known her for over 40 years, has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.” While she’s talking, her right hand rests on my guitar case. Her left hand moves along with her stories, up and down, left to right, in circles, somewhat rhythmically, like a conductor’s baton.

The man across from us keeps his eyes glued to her face and hand. She’s just telling me how she is now advocating for changes in healthcare, when we arrive at the 103rd St stop. She jumps up, grabs my hand, shakes it and says. “Thank you so much. I have no clue why I told you all this.” She moves down towards the exit, turns around and asks loudly, “What’s your name, please?”

The man across from me leans towards me as the door closes and says with his eyebrows twisted into a question mark: “Are you telling me the two of you had never met before?”

I trust by now you have identified that LISTENING is one of the threads that weaves through my approach to life, to interacting with my friends, to my life coaching and to my teaching and facilitation work.

Listening is a whole-being experience, presence, a tool and a gift––

an expression of love and it is precious. Have you come across the Chinese symbol for listening? Here it is: It points to interconnectedness of not just two beings, but also interconnectedness within ourselves: ears, eyes, heart, undivided attention and - YOU (the listener or reader).

Yet, when and how do we truly listen - to ourselves? To others? What does it require? While watching TV, scrolling through social media, being caught up in other distractions?

Most of all, perhaps, we cannot be absorbed by ourselves or the noise in our heads because that does not leave room for anyone else’s story. We also need to, as Peter Senge (a systems scientist who also studied philosophy) says, “pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is.”

I wonder how many conversations would flourish and how may disputes would vanish or at least lose some of their heat if we learned and practiced heart-based and compassionate listening skills? Especially given the rather challenging times in which we live right now, how would it help you to be deeply listened to? You might feel loved, heard and understood in a new way. After all, as Paul Tillich says, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

As the title of my blog suggests, conversations and stories lie at the core of my life and work. Each one of us tells an infinite number of stories. For instance, you post a picture on on Instagram or Facebook. You add a sentence – and there is your story. Each story, regardless of quality or quantity, requires an audience, a story-listener, so to speak. And that’s what fascinates me. Which story do we tell to whom and how? How does our “audience” shape the story we tell?

At a time of our lives where so much happens on social media and very little face-to-face, what happens to our ability to listen? When are we talking to or at someone? When is our mind so busy objecting or preparing our response that we cannot truly hear what the other person is saying? What constitutes listening? - I can’t wait to listen to you, my reader!

The workshop “Story Matters,” a personal storytelling class I will be offering In November, will give you a chance to hone and practice listening skills and experience how they influence how we tell our stories.

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