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Deep Listening and the Prophet Storyteller

What was the first thing that came to mind when you saw that word “prophet” in today’s blog title? Based on our society's half-baked understanding of world religions and the depictions of prophets in Hollywood films, many of us probably regard these hermit-type characters as nothing more than delusional outcasts, convinced that they can see into the future, forecast apocalyptic phenomena, and make predictions about how the events of tomorrow are going to unfold. We tend to regard prophets as magical and otherworldly… or sometimes we see them as folks who are just flat-out crazy.

But a true prophet is not necessarily someone camped out on a busy street corner waving a sign that reads, “The end is near.” Many prophets get out of bed every morning, go to work, collect paychecks, and look for good deals at the grocery store just like you and me. But as these folk navigate their mundane existences in their office cubicles and checkout stands across the country, they experience the world differently than you and me. They walk through life with a heightened level of sensitivity. Their antennae are fine-tuned to receive very faint, but extremely important signals that emanate from the world around them – signals about society, humanity, life, and existence – signals that most of us miss as we frantically plow through our daily routines.

Prophets are not only people who have their fingers on the pulse of the underlying zeitgeists of the age, they are also individuals who can take all of that information and connect the dots. Prophets aren't necessarily soothsayers and fortunetellers; they are people who have such a full, complex and multi-layered understanding of the world around them, that they can "predict" what is going to happen next because they have such a deep understanding of how the world works. Transcendent storytellers are in essence... prophets.

But lots of people have the ability to sense the feelings of others, so what sets prophets apart from garden variety empaths? A prophet is a person who has learned the art of deep listening.

Back in college, one of my most beloved professors and the director of our speech and debate team, drilled the following idea into our impressionable brains: “Delivery covers a multitude of sins.” Dr. D, as he was affectionately known, taught us all a valuable lesson. The FORM of your rhetoric is just as important as the rhetoric itself. No matter how important your message, if you do not skillfully wrap your communication in a palatable, accessible form, the intended meaning might be lost. And conversely, an eloquent speaker who has mastered the art of rhetorical form possesses the ability to compel a sensible person to reconsider the idea that the Earth is round.

Good storytellers do not offer solutions; they present points of view

that audiences have never considered before.

But to tell those types of nuanced stories, authors must first learn how to become deep listeners. A deep listener is someone who chooses to transcend rhetorical form and listen, without judgment, to the underlying message.

Last year during his acceptance speech at the BET awards, actor Jesse Williams delivered an impassioned speech about racism in America. He was angry; he was animated; he didn’t hold back. And as a white, middle-class American, I found myself unnerved by his rhetorical form. My defenses went up, and I began critiquing his methods over his message. My knee-jerk reaction was to fight back and to formulate a defense. But in those heated internal moments following his speech, I decided to take a deep breath and contemplate my reaction. I decided to watch his speech again, but this time I was going to listen… really listen… deeply listen.

I made a conscientious choice to look past Jesse’s angry words and fiery tone and truly HEAR what he was trying to say. As I watched his speech again it was like hearing it for the first time. Not only did his message ring deeply true, his angry tone felt justified. To the best of my ability I considered how I would respond if I faced daily discrimination and lived in fear of police brutality simply because of my genetics. I was able to receive Jesse’s message because I listened deeply.

I had a similar experience with the recent film Get Out. I left the theatre unnerved. As a lover of horror films I was entertained, but something didn’t feel right in my gut; my defenses were sky high, and I found myself criticizing Jordan Peele’s choices of form. But once again, instead of giving into my white-privilege reaction, I asked myself, “What if, instead of being a story about black and white issues, this had been a film about homosexuality and religious fundamentalism? (another topic near and dear to my heart) Would I still be so defensive?” It was at that point I got it! My defenses went down and I received Peele’s message. And it was a powerful, necessary message of oppression, white-privilege, and blind racism.

When NFL player, Colin Kaepernick silently protested during last year’s football season by refusing to stand during the national anthem, he was shunned. Protests aren’t meant to be easy to swallow; they are meant to be bold proclamations of conviction. But society immediately turned on Kaepernick, and shouted from the media rooftops that he didn’t protest “correctly.” Instead of engaging the message, we critiqued the form.

Have you ever corrected someone’s grammar in the middle of a fight? If you have, you weren’t really listening. Have you ever talked negatively about a well-meaning friend because you didn’t like their choice of words? If you have, you weren’t really listening. Have you ever discredited an entire group of oppressed people because a few fringe members protested in a way that displeased you? If you have, you weren’t really listening.

One of the primary reasons we are so afraid to listen deeply is because in order to do so, we have to retract our defenses, humble ourselves, and be vulnerable. As we lower our guarded walls and we listen with reflective postures, we have no choice but to stare our true inner self in the eyes, and what if we don't like the person we see staring back at us? We fear that by listening deeply we might have to address some underlying, troubling issues within ourselves.

Deep listeners have grace for imperfect rhetorical methods, but unlike their counterparts, the shallow listeners, who stop at “bad form” and use it as an excuse to refrain from engaging the deeper issues, prophets and transcendent storytellers see beyond uncomfortable communication. To tell transcendent stories – stories with the power to change the world – authors must first learn to lower their defenses and embrace the art of listening to the world around them… deeply.

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