A few months ago I was having a conversation with someone by phone, and with a person I didn’t know all that well. Our conversation turned to politics, and as it progressed it became passionate (which happens when people talk about politics and religion, or race, even if they agree with each other). In the course of our conversation, I began to butt-in. Admittedly, I’m guilty of doing this, and for a good chunk of my adult life! But in recent years I find myself not retaining information in the same way; thus I do it now more so out of not wanting to forget what I want to say.
At some point in our conversation, this person hung up on me (because I was “interrupting, and that is rude.”). It is rude–butting-in on someone while they are talking. But hanging up on someone is equally rude. Nevertheless, since that encounter I try to listen before speaking. Even if I can sense that I will lose my train of thought before the person I am speaking to finishes what they have to say. I am not always 100% in that effort, but I am mindful, and much better than I used to be.
Several days ago I was sitting with someone in a public place, and this person was pontificating about her life (the man she was involved with; her job, which is stressful and she hates; and not getting ahead like she’d planned). I made every effort not to interject; I sincerely wanted to hear what she was saying. It was clear that she was going through a transition, which she was not emotionally ready to deal with. Transition is subtle; we don’t always recognize the turning-points that occur every so many years in life. But when we hit a brick wall, it’s time to soul-search. And yet more often than not we fail to accept that the brick wall is a part of evolving; it might even be a test. Since I believe caring is more a demonstrative thing than a feeling thing, I attempted to be engaged, attentive, despite this person being combative (in a public place). I was extremely conscious of myself–I didn’t want to butt-in. I consider myself a reasonably decent listener, so I placed even more effort into listening to her words. Not once did I interrupt (or butt-in). I leaned into her diatribe, and incessant complaining. And this was excruciating for me because there were points in her emotional discourse in which I really wanted to interject (so that she could hear a different side of her story).
Suddenly she says to me, “Are you hearing me?” I replied with, “Of course!” But since I wasn’t interrupting her, she assumed my mind was elsewhere. So I began to share some of my thoughts about what she had shared with me. I sensed she was annoyed by my not agreeing with her. She abruptly changed the subject. To be polite, she asked me how my book was doing, but because she was distracted I knew she asked merely to be thoughtful. No sooner than I started sharing details, she interrupted me. She said a few things related to the “book conversation” but swiftly came back to her life (and the drama encompassing it). “There’s this woman I work with . . .” she said. What she did at that moment–shifting the attention back on herself–is what I call “out-storying.” This is when one person believes their story is pressing and meaningful, and your story is less noteworthy, urgent. Each time you have a story you feel needs to be heard, the so-called listener starts to “out-story” you by going into details about their own life. Not that they are self-centered necessarily, but whatever they are experiencing at that moment is far more compelling in their mind. I sincerely trust that it’s not intentional, and the “out-story” teller thinks the details of your life matter, but their story is much more pressing; it’s dynamic and complicated. I.e., Drama!
I know this because I’ve done it more times than I care to recall. I haven’t had a thought-provoking conversation with anyone who hasn’t out-storied. I don’t think anyone out-story’s on purpose. There are times when we feel an urgent need for someone to listen and embrace our joy, our pain, our frustration. To understand the depth and nuances of our story. Someone hearing our story adds a sense of relevance to our purpose in the world. Our story means we are alive; at the very least, we still have a heartbeat. We feel compelled to share it (whether life is going good or throwing daggers at us left and right), and for someone to hear it. I think that’s why this person asked, “Are you hearing me?” She didn’t need someone to listen. Listening is a matter of paying attention to selective words and drawing a conclusion. She wanted someone to hear what she had to say. And in hearing it, there was a level of validation to how she felt.
Although I would like to think I am aware of when I am out-storying, it generally takes reflection for me to realize that I had. This person–someone I volunteer with; we aren’t what I call friends–hugged and thanked me before we went our separate ways. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I know I’m bitching and everything . . . I just wanted to talk to someone who can relate.”
It was a few hours later when it clicked for me: We want someone to authenticate our narrative; more than likely that is why we out-story. And only if we relate to the story can we genuinely authenticate it.