On National Day of Listening, How to Get Someone's Story

"Listening to people reminds them that their lives matter."

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In the middle of a conversation a friend once stopped me and said, "Tell me back everything I just told you." I couldn't. Not long after, he passed away, which made the lesson especially poignant. Most of us don't spend enough time really listening.

Now, as a therapist, I listen to stories professionally. Today, on the National Day of Listening, everyone is supposed to share stories. David Isay, founder of StoryCorps -- a Macarthur Genuis and an unwavering idealist -- also founded National Day of Listening because "every life matters equally, every voice matters equally, every story matters equally."

The project recalls Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, to democratize oral history and create an archive of American voices. Since beginning in 2003, StoryCorps has recorded over 30,000 interviews from over 60,000 participants. In an interview David Isay said, "Listening to people reminds them that their lives matter."

The idea is simple: on the day after Thanksgiving family and friends often still gather together. The goal is to sit down for ten to twenty minutes with a loved one and really listen to their story.

The StoryCorps "Do-it-yourself guide" offers many wonderful questions for all types of interviews. And based on my personal mistakes as a young therapist, here are a few extra interview tips for today's National Day of Listening:

  • Get comfortable, in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted. Cell phones off.
  • Match body language. But do not do this so much that your interviewee says, "Did they teach you to imitate body language in therapy school?" Most communication happens non-verbally.
  • Remind the person that you are there to listen and that they have an interesting story to tell. They do not have to "wow" you. They just need to be themselves and share what they know best (themselves).
  • Start the questions off easy(ish), as in, "Tell me about your childhood."
  • Do not start talking about yourself.
  • Listen. Do not interrupt. Nod. 
  • Follow the emotion, go to what moves you.
  • Later on, do not be afraid to ask hard questions. They do not have to answer.
  • Some of the questions to ask a parent from the StoryCorps guide: "If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?" "What was I like as a kid?" "What advice would you give me about raising my own kids?" "Are you proud of me?"
  • Thank the person for sharing their story. Let them know their story is important. Tell them what moved you. Bring their story into the present.

Today is a call to really listen. Interview. Share stories. I plan to interview my father. I talk to him frequently, but not in a sit down and actually listen sort of way. I'll probably use an iPhone or dig up an old tape recorder. If I think his story interesting enough, I'll upload it onto StoryCorps open Wall of Listening.

The biggest fear, said StoryCorps facilitator Naomi Greene, is that "people think their story is not important enough to tell." It's often, however, the ordinary stories that become extraordinary. Studs Terkel, the godfather of oral history, laments the loss of the human voice in his poignant animated StoryCorps interview. National Day of Listening encourages all of us to honor a friend, a loved one, or a member of the community by interviewing them about their lives, and by really listening.