From Storytelling to Story-listening

Cesar Garcia
Cesar Garcia, Ph.D.

Director (Academic),
Global Listening Centre.
Prof Central Washington University

In her last book, iGen, Jean M. Twenge shows that the relative risk of unhappiness among 8th graders depends directly on time spent on screen vs non-screen activities. According to her study, those kids who play sports, attend religious services, read print media, and enjoy in-person social interactions have less probability of being depressed. Those who were more stuck to their screens, surfing the internet or using social networking websites,suffered higher levels of depression and anxiety, according to Twenge. The risk of unhappiness due to social media use is the highest for the youngest teens. Twenge makes clear that Facebook and Twitter are causes of unhappiness and not vice versa–sadness does not motivate use of these networks.

How is this possible? We were told the internet was improving human communication. People across the world can communicate faster and more efficiently than ever before. The same thing can be said about the communication between organizations and their publics–relations should be more symmetrical than ever, allowing organizations to change their behaviors in the same way they previously only asked publics to do.Democracies should be more democratic than ever,permitting a higher number of citizens to express their views about current issues all the time and in real time.

So, what’s going on?

A few days ago, I was with my mother-in-law at a Christmas bazaar. She talked for about 10 minutes with a manufacturer and seller of artisan vinegars and salad dressings. She was not interested in buying anything,but she was attentive tothat person’s sales pitch and personal story. Afterwards, he gave her a gift, one of his sauces, as a thank-you for her kindness–one supposes for doing nothing more than listening to his story. It seems that in these times, when attention is so scarce, listening is more valuable than money. This anecdote was just a small proof of it.

The educational system, at least in Western countries, emphasizes action and equalizes action with doing as much talking. Being “outgoing” is a compliment, being an “introvert” (which can sometimes just mean being more of a listener than a talker) is considered almost like an insult, or even a pathology. 

Our educational system glorifies the conversion of people from receivers to senders.It believes that everybody can be an influencer, opinion leader, or an expert in something.  Concepts such as storytelling have flourished in this era, definedas the ability to tell or write stories.Storytelling is now “a staple of public relations” (Kent, 2015, p. 480) that allows for the persuasion of audiences. To another commentator, it “is a communication, control and power technique” (Salmon, 2008, p. 34) for managing opinions. We are told that being good storytellers is a key skill in any job, that we should consider ourselves as small organizations trying to captivate our audiences with good stories.We are told very often that good leaders are also good storytellers. What we are not told is that they are excellent listeners as well.

Butif we are all interested in telling our stories as a means to success, who is going to listen to them? One of the things that Twenge describes in her book is how much anxiety teenagers feel when their postings are not “liked” immediately, or ever. A careful reading or consideration of their posts’ content would appear the least important thing. Listening, or simulating listening, becomes merely a transaction, just anI like you if you like merelationship, even if I am not listening to you.

Our kids, like us, are told all the time to follow their passions, but with all the possibilities offered today by the communicative sphere, that means less exposure than ever to opposing viewpoints, and less dialogue between individuals with alternative or opposite positions. It means becoming an expert/influencer in something at the expense of listening to those who not only may think differently than us, but have different interests than us. The digitalization and apparent plurality of available content produces the opposite expected effect.Now more than ever, Habermas’ (1984) ideal deliberative debate becomes a utopia.

In this, the most intercommunicated and interdependent world in history, Ralph G. Nichols’s famousquote that“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them,” is more valid than ever.

Maybe it’s time to move from storytelling to story-listening, or the ability to listen to stories. Some cultures, mostly high-context Easternones (Hall, 1971),emphasize the role of the receiver, the person that in the movies is not on screen when s/he is not talking, the person that carries the weight of the conversation. The inability to appreciate that is definitely a Western deficit. Let the star be the (active) listener, or the person who appreciates the value of silence.

It is a joy. And a gift.


Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Volume 1. Reason and the racionalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Kent, Michael. (2015). The power of storytelling in public relations: Introducing the

20 master plots. Public Relations Review, 480-489.

Salmon, Christian. (2010). Storytelling. Barcelona: Península. Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen. Whytoday’ssuper-connectedkids are growing up lessrebellious, more tolerant, lesshappy and completelyunpreparedforadulthood and whatthatmeansfortherest of us. New York: AtriaBooks.

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