Storytelling and story-listening are two halves of a life-giving art. Both are crucial in any relationship. In ancient China, we’re told, there were two friends—one who played the harp with exquisite attentiveness and skill, and another who listened with equal attentiveness and skill. When the one played or sang about a mountain stream, the other would exclaim, “Yes, I can hear it now splashing over the rocks!” Their playing and listening were part of a dance they shared together. But after a time the listener fell sick and died. In grief, the first friend cut the strings of his harp, unable to play anymore. To this day in China, the cutting of harp strings is a sign of intimate friendship.
Speaking from the heart and listening from the heart are the two most important prerequisites in practicing the Way of Council. Being aware of how we communicate is also crucial. It helps to remember that 55% of what we convey in talking to another is determined by body language (posture, gesture, and eye contact), 38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by the actual content of what we say. We therefore need to listen for more than the words. That means paying careful attention to the other person, not trying to think of how we’ll respond. We have to avoid “rehearsing” while the other person is still speaking.
If we do this with focused attention and spontaneity, then anything we share, coming from the heart, can be profoundly healing. Once a Hindu master was asked by his disciples to summarize the truth he had been teaching through the years. “All I’ve done all my life,” he replied, “is to sit on the bank of the river, selling river water.” His gift was to invite people to see the value and wonder in what they too easily dismiss as commonplace in their lives. His stories were able to turn into mystery what everyone else took for granted. The most moving stories are taken from everyday life. In receiving them, we don’t have to stay in our heads, analyzing their content. Jack Shea, the Catholic theologian and storyteller, says that our first question on hearing a story shouldn’t be “What does it mean?” but “What am I feeling?”