While the storyteller garners so much of the attention, the impact of telling the story depends directly on the capacity of the hearer to listen.  Sometimes I think when I tell the story of Nicholas that I’m kind of droning on making noise to fill peoples ears and minds.  Surely they won’t or don’t want to listen to the story again?  That might be the case so the equally important part in the capacity for a story to heal is the listener.  Are you a good listener?  Do you enjoy other’s stories?  Are you able to listen to them in the context of the life of the person telling the story or do you garner from the story what relates to your own life?  Are you able to tell someone if you are able and willing to listen carefully at that time or not?  Willing?  Those who wish to tell the story that challenges their identity tend to randomly select people in hopes that he or she might catch an able and willing listener.  Some make appointments with counselors or therapists or with clergy; some assume family are willing to listen; some seek a friend to listen.  When I was in seminary a classmate of mine suffered a horrible family tragedy.  His parents, both brothers and their wives, all died in a small plane crash in the Northwest.  One day we met at one of the homes where we house sat.  He began to tell the story again and I began to teach him all I knew about grief.  He looked at me with piercing eyes and asked me to just shut up and listen.  He said he didn’t need advice; he simply needed a sympathetic ear.  We sat and I listened as he recounted the story of what had taken place.  And then he told the story again.  And I listened again. 

When you or I get invited into someone’s unique story, we are entering sacred space.  The chances are high that we will get invited into the brokenness of the person we listen to.  The storyteller basically asks this question:  will you, the listener, accompany me, the broken storyteller, into the deeper levels of myself that this story invites?  If you’re lucky, as I was with me friend mentioned above, the storyteller will tell you what he or she needs from you.  I think the only way we enter the deeper places of brokenness takes place in telling stories and having someone listen.  Here’s another interesting factor in this process.  Often, as the listener, if we don’t catch or understand what the storyteller is saying, they will repeat what they’ve said again until the listener either gets on board or indicates that this isn’t a good time.  In fact, the storyteller will repeat their attempts several times before deciding whether to give up on the listener and search for another.  Pain speaks loudly and the desire for pain to be shared is tenacious.  The key rests in the partnership between the storyteller and the listener.

Here are a few key factors in being a good storyteller listener.  First, make sure that you are in a place psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, and practically to give the best of your undivided attention to the storyteller.  Second, be honest with yourself whether you care or not.  If not, the wound created by seeming to care is far greater than the wound of simply saying you don’t think you’re the right person or this isn’t a good time.  Third, listen carefully and ask clarifying questions.  Asking questions communicates to the storyteller that you as a listener are engaged.  Also, asking questions says to the teller that if they wish to travel deeper you will travel with them.  Wounds heal from the inside out that’s why the closer the listener helps the storyteller find that deeper wound the richer the healing.  Fourth, resist comparing what you hear in someone else’s story to similar experiences of your own.  There might be a time for that kind of empathy but generally not until the teller indicates that hearing of the listener’s experience might be helpful.  Fifth, try to suspend judgment.  All serious losses involve levels of guilt and shame.  You, as a listener, may even see the wrong that the teller committed that led to the tragedy or loss.  While the listener may see the teller’s responsibility, healing will not take place until the teller sees what or how their actions contributed to the tragedy or death.  A 19-year-old boy suffers from addiction to drugs with suicidal ideation.  His mother, legitimately dealing with significant and pervasive back pain, obtains a prescription for opioids, places them in her medicine cabinet assuming their safe.  Later she comes home to find her son dead and the empty bottle of pills laying on the ground next to him.  As she tells her story this action stands out like a sore thumb.  Her story moves from “I can’t believe this happened” to “I can’t believe he took my pills” to “I can’t believe I didn’t think that my pills would tempt him” to “my negligence contributed to my son’s death.”  Her self-assessment is accurate, and the eventual judgment will overwhelm her for years.  In this case, the listener only listens knowing full well that the teller must come to see her own responsibility in her own way.  Resist judgment.  Sixth, the mind is created in such a way as we seek first to protect ourselves from suffering pain.  The defenses we employ serve a purpose and dismantling those defenses only hurts the teller.   The power in listening comes from the grace of developing a partnership with the storyteller such that repeated expressions of the story open up wounds to the air and the hope and possibility of healing.  Seventh, if the listener is willing, volunteer to listen and meet again.