Beyond Listening

With more than 40 million copies in print, Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People should be on everyone’s reading list.

But in writing another’s story, one of the habits is particularly important:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

With just a little windage this becomes understand first, then write.

Unlike writing one’s own story, the actual writing part of capturing the story of another is not a journey of discovery. To be sure, one way to get to the essence of the piece you are seeking to write, if you have no other clue, is to begin by transcribing your interview. Then read what you’ve written while referring to the notes you’ve taken in your notebook. And those notes should say something about feeling.

Even so, the journey of understanding your writing partner needs to be substantially complete before you begin actually writing their story. There is little chance you will be able to get your reader to understand your partner if you, yourself,  do not.

In understanding another, Covey makes the point that you’ve really got to go beyond listening. In his book he describes these kinds of “listening:”


Pretending to listen

Selective Listening

Active Listening

Empathic Listening


Before Covey, most coaches cited active listening as the highest kind you could do. In it, you paraphrase what you’ve heard and say it back so that your communicating partner know that you heard what they said accurately. This is great for factual communication, but it simply is not enough for emotional communication. that’s why Covey came up with the fifth kind of listening, Empathic Listening, in which you seek not only to understand the factuality of your partner’s story, but also their emotional take on it – their feeling about it. Further, you need to do this in the moment of the interview and make note of it in your notebook. Catch any and all emotional clues – from voice inflection to facial expression to eye movement to body language or any of a host of things that your recorder will not capture for you.  All writers know that successful story writing conveys feeling as well as fact. So in writing another’s story, your need to go beyond fact into feeling. In journalism, feeling is anathema, but story writing is not journalism. In writing stories told by another the more of their feeling you capture the better. So listening for feeling as well as fact is paramount in interviewing another for their story.

So seek first to understand by seeking to be an empath, one who shares the emotion of another as a way plumb their meaning. That’s the way to capture the feeling that will make your story of another come alive for your reader.



About Richard Haverlack

Richard Haverlack has been writing the memoirs of hospice patients for more than eight years. He has recently written a book, A Memoir of Memoirs - Writing Stories Told at Life's End, which is about the poignant and enlightening experiences he's had in doing this work. Richard is a volunteer for the Good Samaritan Hospice near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also is active in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institution at the University of Pittsburgh where he studies as well as teaches.

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