A project of Brooklyn Historical Society

The Impact of Listening

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September 25, 2012

"Listening with empathy means you listen in such a way that the other person feels you are really listening, really understanding, hearing with your whole being - with your heart," writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

We don't often dedicate 100% of our attention to listening, even to the people we love: we listen while cooking dinner or checking our phone for text messages or flipping through a magazine or watching tv or driving or jostling for space on the subway... However, in the past decade, there is an increased interest in hearing life stories, even from people we don't know, as evidenced by the success of radio programs like This American Life, storytelling events like The Moth, and story recording projects like StoryCorps.

Why are we interested in life stories?  What do we learn by hearing other people's experiences? What do we gain by sharing our own personal and family histories? 


One explanation for the rise in public story sharing is that we have less opportunities to hear life histories from our own families and loved ones, either because people live further away from one another or because we no longer have the time or traditions for storytelling.

I've found that people's life stories are better than fiction. When people tell me little tidbits they've pulled from the recesses of their memory, I'm often surprised and always fascinated.