the telling of stories

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Recently I was in a team building day.  It happens that the (work) team I’m part of has undergone some significant changes recently, so we decided to spend a day together as the ‘new’ team to mark this new beginning.

Part of the day involved the invitation to take 7 minutes to tell a little of our life story in answering the question “how did you get to be here?”.

Even as I write, it sounds like a simple task, that would have been no big deal; just tell the stories and move on to the important parts of they day. Right?

That (of course) isn’t how it worked out. It turns out that the opportunity to listen carefully to a bunch of colleagues tell something of their life story (even if only for 7 minutes each) is a rich and rewarding one, revealing all sorts of connections with one another, finding out what really matters, or why the other is a certain way.  The opportunity to tell your own story too, to an intently listening group is a rare privilege – providing the opportunity to think about the core of who you are, and to organise your thoughts around your own life’s adventures.

We discovered all sorts of things about each other over those 63 minutes (do the maths and you’ll work out how many are in my team).  We laughed so hard the actual laughter was funny in itself. And we were on the very edge of tears at other time as genuinely moving or profound stories were shared. It was, for me, the highlight of our day together.

I walked away so much the richer for the time shared, and so glad for the opportunity to listen, and to speak.

And also a little nonplussed.

Maybe it’s just in my world (genuinely I mean that), but it seems opportunities like this – to listen to another speak of their deep story – are a bit too rare in our modern world. Social media is not the place where deep stories are shared.  Increasingly busy schedules means the time to stop and listen (really listen…when was the last time I did that? you?) seems harder to find. Minds filled with a thousand and one things are less able to slow down, focus, pay attention to the other.

It seems we (by which I mean I) might be missing out on something important here.

Later that week I dropped into the mechanic to pick up my car – usually a 2 minute interaction involving me transferring horrendous sums of money to his account, and a few inane pleasantries.  This day, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I went a little beyond the usual and asked a couple of more open questions – and we got into quite a valuable conversation.  It only lasted maybe 5 minutes, and for all I know he might have been thinking “c’mon mate, take your car and leave, I have work to do” – but it didn’t seem like that.  He seemed to be enjoying the conversation, and the storytelling as much as I was.  This encounter reminded me that it doesn’t need to be team building meetings, or campfires or counselling sessions where we share our stories…it’s possible even in the moments of our every day…provided we’re willing not to be rushed.

Now it’s quite possible that this is not news to you, and I’m just late to the realisation (or to be charitable, the reminder) about the value of listening to the story of another – but it felt like quite a big couple of moments for me in that week as I encountered the importance of telling and listening to stories from one another’s lives.

Of course we can hear the story of another through their actions too, as the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “Who you are thunders so loudly I can’t hear a single word you say.”  But while that is without question true and valuable, it seems to me there’s also something precious about inviting someone to tell their own story using words – and listening carefully and interestedly (a new word I just invented) while they do so.

It’s a personal challenge for me, a life-long introvert fairly well down one end of the I-E scale of your average Myers-Briggs personality test – but it is a challenge I find myself interested in taking up.

So…hit me up for a chocolate milkshake…I’m ready to listen to your story. 😉

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to be happy…and yet…

It’s time I started writing again after quite a long break. I’ll probably be rusty. Bear with me (or just let this and the next couple pass by). Cheers!


Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash

It was an excellent moment. Delightful even. And it made me happy.

I’d spent a few months filling in some parts of a senior role within the organisation I work for. One of those tasks was to join the senior execs for their weekly meeting. It was the kind of meeting that deals with HR and risk and budgets and complaints and legal issues and strategy questions and staffing concerns and and and and. All the kinds of things that I’m neither good at, nor all that interested in.

And this moment marked the end of that period of filling in. The moment my last meeting as part of the group wrapped up.

I was so happy to have finished, to get those few hours each week back into my diary. I’d been counting down the weeks, and the blessed moment had finally arrived. I could (and maybe did) have done a little dance.

And yet…I also walked away a little sad.

I’d come to really value the people I was meeting with. To understand that in exercising their own gifts and skills they want the best for the organisation at least as much as I do.

I’d come to realise that I was learning a huge amount from each of them individually, and from participating in the meetings with them collectively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to re-invent myself as an accountant or HR manager or risk specialist on the basis of this series of meetings…but nonetheless I’d learned a huge amount and valued the opportunity. As much as I was happy…I felt sad too.

It was a thoroughly confusing moment, to realise that as much as I was happy (and I most definitely was), there was also a little gloominess in the mix (and it was real).

It is, I guess, a strange, but very human thing that we can have these seemingly contradictory feelings in the same moment.

Maybe it’s similar to those contradictory feelings of grief and relief when an elderly relative passes after long and painful health battle.

Or the mix of disappointment and joy when a much-anticipated event is cancelled, but frees up enough time for some long overdue family time (or an afternoon nap 😉 ).

Maybe living with contradiction, with seemingly contrary emotions is entirely human. Is holding in tension two things that seem impossible to have happily co-exist a vital daily reality?

For me at least, realising my capacity to be both happy and sad in the same moment was a helpful reminder. A reminder that the world I inhabit is rarely either/or. Rarely black or white. It’s more often both/and. More often shades of grey.

In so many ways we’re inhabiting a complex world, building for ourselves a a complex and confusing culture. I wonder if, for me at least, learning this capacity to hold opposites in tension, to notice the contrasts in myself, and in the world around me, might just help me make sense of it.

Being happy and sad at the same moment might just be a pointer to a bigger reality.

Still, the next time the appointed hour for that meeting rolls around and I notice a big yawning space in my diary so I can pursue other work? I think happiness might just win out. 🙂