Storytelling: it starts with listening

  • Valerie den Ridder
  • 03 / 07 / 2023
Leestijd: 4 min

Listening, we seem to have more and more trouble with it. Just ask yourself: when was the last time you really listened? Often we truly believe we are listening, while in reality we are not doing so well. A shame, since this is where powerful storytelling begins. Or as Cor Hospes (Dutch content marketer) puts it beautifully: it starts with storylistening. This is the only way to find stories inside and outside your organization to surface. How this works? And how to listen properly? Let's dive in.

We can no longer ignore it: we are losing listening. As many as 80% (!) of the Dutch listen poorly in conversations. Obviously, in this "me-age", we are mostly preoccupied with ourselves. Just try to consciously listen to someone, or even looking closely at him or her. You will notice it's not that easy, because you are constantly distracted by your own thoughts and intentions. Listening simply no longer seems to be a priority. And so proverbs like "speaking is silver, silence is gold" seem to lose their value.

In the communications industry, we see it too: listening is overshadowed by personal leadership, debating and influencing techniques. While good empathetic ears are indispensable for finding and creating authentic stories. When you listen well, actively and empathically, you not only hear more, but your interlocutor is also willing to tell more. Cor Hospes gave some tips to unlearn this ‘not listening’:

Clear your head

In every conversation, make sure you are in the here and now. Clear your head! Only then can you really connect with the person across from you and start the conversation. We are often distracted by internal ‘noise’. Perhaps even faster than by external noise. If your head is full of thoughts, it becomes difficult to concentrate on what the other person is saying.

For this reason, it is also wise to leave at least 15 minutes between meetings. Otherwise, you'll lose focus on the current conversation because you're still processing the previous one. Tip: Give 100% of your attention when listening or don't listen at all. People who feel seen are more likely to share something deeper with you. And that's where the best stories are created.

Step into it 'blank' and unbiased

A very important one: leave your judgments, opinions and advices at home. And put aside your assumptions and prejudices for a moment. We like to hear that someone's views match our own. Subconsciously, these feelings create a preference for information that matches our own ideas. And an aversion to information that contradicts our ideas. We like to be confirmed in our biases. Also known as: confirmation bias. We still listen mainly to people and media who think like us. While good listeners are good at dealing with other insights. And use those insights to expand their view - and reconsider their own perceptions.

Stay curious: why, why, why?

Embrace your own ignorance and show genuine interest. Listening is more about the other person than about yourself. You want to really understand the other person. Assume you are sitting across from an expert, someone with their own perspective and valuable knowledge. Think of it as a "human library": everyone you meet knows something you don't. Curiosity means that you are willing to admit your own wrongness and sincerely try to understand the other person so that they can speak up freely. Step back into the shoes of your younger self for a moment. Children ask the "why?" question without any shame. And not just once, but a hundred times. So don't hesitate and ask why, and then ask why six more times. Dare to go in depth and discover the underlying layers.

Nope, it's not about you right now....

Most people listen not with the intent to understand, but with the intent to respond. We are eager to respond. Why is that? Talking about ourselves gives us dopamine. As much as 40% of the conversations we have are about ourselves. We also often tend to draw conversations to ourselves.

We also call this ‘conversational take-overs’. Imagine: you find yourself in a conversation, but you don't get the opportunity to contribute anything. This is because the other person is continuously talking about what he thinks of the situation. Every time you want to hook in, he/ she finds another way to take over the conversation. This is a form of self-centeredness, "talk narcissism," where a person responds to someone else's story only by sharing his own experiences. Pretty tiring, right?

Try to hear what the other is really saying

Listening is not about hearing the other person, but about whether the other person feels heard and therefore seen and understood. Real listening goes beyond the spoken words. It is about the hidden meaning behind these words: the feelings, desires and emotions that are hiding there. It requires a deeper understanding, an empathic connection that gives the other person the confidence to express themselves fully.

Empathy is the power that lets you get into the skin of others. It's not about sharing someone's experience, it's about being able to imagine what it's like. Brené Brown doesn't call stories ‘data with a soul’ for nothing. Yet many organizations prefer to stay away from the profound stories full of emotion, from the undercurrent. They prefer to focus on the upstream: the rational information channel filled with numbers, visions and policies - anything measurable. The undercurrent is too vague and elusive for them. Stories are steeped in the undercurrent: they contain experiences, perceptions, values, wisdom and emotions. Those willing to listen gather invaluable and indispensable information.

Ask 'narrative stimulus questions'

Often we tend to ask ‘closed’ or subjective questions. Especially if, as a content marketer, you already have a story/ narrative in your head. The problem with these types of questions is that you will steer the conversation in a certain direction, and thus miss valuable information. The solution? Narrative incentive questions. By specifically asking about specific emotions or an actual event, you encourage the other person to tell a personal story. Examples of narrative stimulus questions:

  • Can you describe a concrete situation in which you were really proud of yourself?
  • Take me to a concrete event or situation from your work that made you say: look, that's what gave me energy (or didn't).
  • Tell me about a challenge you overcame and what lessons you learned from it.

If you ask the question correctly, it almost always results in a beautiful story. And that is what storytelling is all about!

Want to uncover the real story of your organization/brand? Send an e-mail to for a good conversation. We are happy to listen to your story!