Stone Soup And The Lost Art Of Storylistening

I spend a lot of my time telling stories.

When I teach, I use stories. When I consult, I use stories. When groups of us come together to collaborate and scheme and envision our futures, we use stories. And, certainly, storytelling is at the core of the work I do with TEDx.

But something happened last night that made me think hard about the way I approach stories and the way I communicate.

The thing that happened was an event I was privileged to attend, “Stone Soup.” Invented by my friend Stuart, the idea is simple: a group of people comes together for a dinner. Each brings a dish. Each brings a story. There’s a theme. The evening is co-created. In Stuart’s words, the soup is only as good as what each of us puts into the pot.

It started like any other potluck dinner party -- a bunch of people sipping drinks, standing around, chit-chatting. But then Stuart convened the session, the stories began, and the dynamic changed entirely. Each person stood at the front of the room, sharing whatever chord had been struck by this month’s theme, “Mystery.” We heard stories about childhood friends. Near-death experiences. Family secrets. The storyteller reigned supreme; we were taken on journeys through lifetimes and continents, through ghosts and generosity, through unexpected adventures and hearts laid bare.

The stories were told the way stories ought to be told: casually, conversationally, conspiratorially. Interestingly, this created an odd dynamic.

Normally, when I’m hearing a casual, conversational story, it’s in a peer-to-peer environment -- sitting across the dinner table, perhaps, or having a coffee. When we tell stories in this environment, the atmosphere is often one of interruption: side jokes, murmurs of agreement, tangential commentary. We’ve all had the experience of beginning a story, having it waylaid, and never seeing it to completion.

But the whole standing-at-the-front-of-the-room thing gave an element of formality to the proceedings. What we were left with was the respect you give someone who is performing on stage, coupled with the intimate connection you feel when your closest friend opens his heart to you.

What Stuart has created isn’t just a space for storytelling; it’s also a space for storylistening. And what I realized is not only how rare that is, but how much my storytelling has adapted to not being in that kind of environment.

I tell stories that are short, that get to the punchline quickly -- more anecdotes than narratives. I want to get to the end before someone’s side comment derails me. I write that way, too: for Twitter, for Facebook -- even this column starts to max out at around a mere 600 words. I communicate, digitally and verbally, according to the assumption that I will only capture your attention fleetingly, that if my soundbite isn’t self-contained and delivered in a tiny digestible packet, it will be intercepted and never arrive at all. 

In the online marketing space, this is a safe assumption and good practice. But it is not conducive to deep human relationships. There is real value in stopping, in closing our mouths, opening our ears, and listening attentively to the people we love, for as long as it takes them to get to the point. We process through story; we reveal ourselves; we learn from each other. The Stone Soup magic doesn’t happen when we put our stories into the pot; it happens when we focus our attention and give each other the gift of being heard.

And that’s my 600 words. Thanks for listening.

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5 comments about "Stone Soup And The Lost Art Of Storylistening ".
  1. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship , July 27, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.
    Well done Kaila, thanks for sharing. Listening is a lost art and too often we simply are waiting for the other person to finish so we can jump in and tell them our story. It is amazing the connection you can make if you truly listen, and then show them you were listening by make relevant comments and input, and then allowing them to continue or react. We all need to think long and hard about this with our families, friends, business associates, and if we are marketers... with consumers.
  2. Lisbeth Kramer from Identities , July 27, 2012 at 11:58 a.m.
    KAILA bravo! I hope many are listening, and hear you loud and clear!this is what I personally love about the art of true COLLABORATION and team ....exchange of thought..listening, learning, thinking a NEW thought, or perhaps even an old in a different way. Not only is this powerful in connecting with consumers as marketers, but every day we wake up, walk,encounter a human being....are we connecting less consciously since technology has turned us on?..have we turned the connective life force off? thank you for putting your insights out with clear colorful story
  3. Linda Souza from Central Desktop , July 27, 2012 at 2:05 p.m.
    Great post, Kaila. You (and Stuart) have inspired me to host a Stone Soup event.
  4. Stuart Candy from Arup , July 28, 2012 at 2:04 a.m.
    Thank you so much for writing this, Kaila. Running Stone Soup has taught me a great deal, and it's highly gratifying to hear the lessons others are taking from it too. Linda, please do let us know how your experiment goes.
  5. Kaila Colbin from Ministry of Awesome , August 3, 2012 at 6:20 p.m.
    Thanks, guys! I really appreciate your kind words. Linda, ditto what Stuart said -- can't wait to hear about your Stone Soup!