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National Day of Listening 2012: How to Celebrate Story Telling on Black Friday

This year marks the fourth anniversay of the National Day of Listening, a national holiday first organized by the nonprofit organization StoryCorps in 2008. (Regular NPR listeners might know StoryCorps from Morning Edition every Friday. In the past, StoryCorps has also worked with PBS.) The idea is simple: Instead of buying lots of things you probably don't need, listen to somebody who probably does need it. 

"On the day after Thanksgiving, StoryCorps asks everyone to take a few minutes to record an interview with a loved one. You can use recording equipment that is readily available in most homes, such as computers, iPhones, and digital recorders, along with StoryCorps’ free Do-It-Yourself Instruction Guide."

After a day of giving thanks, one of the most meaningful things you can do for yourself, your loved ones, and your families is simply listen to their stories. Unlike Black Friday or Cyber Monday, the National Day of Listening costs little to your wallet and contributes much to your emotional and mental wealth.

As Peter Guber, an acclaimed American film producer, writes in Psychology Today, "Stories, unlike straight-up information, can change our lives because they directly involve us, bringing us into the inner world of the protagonist. As I tell the students in one of my UCLA graduate courses, Navigating a Narrative World, without stories not only would we not likely have survived as a species, we couldn't understand ourselves. They provoke our memory and give us the framework for much of our understanding. They also reflect the way the brain works. While we think of stories as fluff, accessories to information, something extraneous to real work, they turn out to be the cornerstone of consciousness."

It has been shown that people who listen well make better leaders. Active listening is now seen as an invaluable soft skill for those entering professions which require communication and relational skills (e.g., most jobs in America). Bonus for PolicyMic writers: listening also improves your content curation abilities. But beyond the potential job benefits, we can administer to ourselves and others through the receptive act of listening.

Concerted listening is much harder than it appears. It requires an absolute dedication to transcending the self, disregarding any desire to claim someone else's story as your own, to relate and therefore to minimize. Often, in conversations, we listen while preparing our own responses, and therefore pay only half-attention to what is going on around us. Our conversations, thus, are seldom as deep or interrogative as they could be. Our approach to others is grounded firmly in our conceptions of self, which requires no real change in one's own patterns of thought or moral value systems. It's a static way to interact which minimizes both our own capacities for empathy and our ability to learn.

Perhaps the most prosaic explanation of the power of listening comes from the late author David Foster Wallace. In a commencement speech he originally gave to students at Kenyon College, Ohio usually titled "This is Water" (which later became a book of the same name), Wallace explains,

"A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

"Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.

"But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called 'virtues.' This is not a matter of virtue — it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self."

We could all be better at doing this work, particularly after an election season characterized by a distinct lack of listening on both sides. After you sleep off your food coma, put away your laptop and your wallet, find a real, live human person, and listen up.

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