There are two sides to a conversation

Many people are storytellers, and for good reason. The art of telling a story is what evolved humans to where we stand now. It is a passing of learned information from past experience to others. Or maybe, that’s what it was. Now, it serves multiple purposes, one of which being the aforementioned. The next person you run in to. Get them talking, and they will likely delve into a story about something that they find important in their life.

In order for there to be a storyteller, there must be someone on the other end to listen, right? How many of you sit in your living room recliner, house empty, TV off, and talk for the pleasure of hearing your voice tell a story? Is a story worth telling if there is nobody around to hear it? So at least most of the time, it is pleasurable to have someone present to listen to your story.

There are two kinds of listening. Or rather, there are two kinds of listeners. The first kind is the person who isn’t talking while you are, but you can tell from their body language and verbal response (or possibly lack thereof) that your story isn’t even reaching their brain box. They have other things on their mind. They’re thinking about the washing machine that just broke in their house and how much it will cost to replace it, bills are due at the end of the month, both cars need oil changes, and their son needs his soccer fees paid off for the season. Even though they may not intend for this message to come across, they are essentially stating “I am more important than you are right now.” If the opposite were true, that person would not be thinking about anything, but instead listening to a story.

The other kind of listener is actively engaged in the story. They aren’t sitting and replying blandly—or even emotionally—with short quips to keep you telling your story while they think about what they find more important. It is just as easy to sit and say “uh-huh” with no emotion as it is to say the same thing with a smile or intent look in your eye. The actively engaged listener is becoming part of the story. They’re asking questions about parts of the story (not offering advice). They’re making comical remarks when something about the story appears humorous. The storyteller can discern that the listener is interested in the story because the listener wants to be involved in the story, which then isn’t a story at all, but a dialogue. It is a conversation.

Many people are storytellers, but how many people are effective storylisteners? I’ve been spending the past two and a half weeks at a podunk brewery in eastern Tennessee. I’m climbing in most of my free time in the Obed, and spending the other time helping Delmas, the brewer and campground host, run his business. Adjacent to the brewery, there is a campground, which fills up predictably each Friday afternoon, and drains off every Sunday evening. The bar for the brewery is open Wednesday through Saturday. Those nights, I hang around the bar because what the hell else is someone living in a van going to do when the sun goes down around 1700?

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An Obed wall called Stephen King Library. The roof routes are as twisted as the novels!

Every weekend, there is a cool vibe that happens at this bar with people from all over the world. I’ve met people from Sweden and Norway. A guy from the UK who spent his last five months climbing in China. Couples on the road from all corners of the United States. It’s a gaggle of randoms who get together for the enjoyment of life and nothing more. There are musical performances every evening, but none of them are paid and all of them are much better off that way. Last night, it was just another guy and me sitting with guitars. I’d play a song, and somewhere along the way I would put up an instrumental section and he would wail out riffs until he had played every possible note which matched my tune. There have been guitars, mandolins, singing, and harps every weekend.

But it isn’t the music that grips me back every night. It isn’t the beer, either. It’s the storylistening. It’s being the guy who shows another person that their story really does matter; that it is worth listening to. People start talking to me. I never seem to make an effort to find conversation. When the person starts talking, I have no idea what kind of ride I am in for. I don’t know if they’re having the best time of their life or if they’re moving through a low section, searching for a way to better ground. Regardless, I shut off my thoughts and listen to what they have to say. I engage myself in their story, and it takes me to some really neat places. It is somewhat like a puzzle. It is a challenge to see how well I can be attentive, and if need be, keep the story from going ass end up.

If the person is wanting to gloat about what makes them awesome, then I question what makes them awesome. I ask things that make them think about what is next on the agenda for being so awesome. If the person is struggling with where they are, then I ask questions which make them think about how they could go towards something better, while simultaneously reminding them that they can only go somewhere better because of where they are now, and thus the shit that they’re in is still something special. Both of these situations usually change things from a story to a conversation, which is a balanced connection between two people.

And then there are those that just like to talk. Those are equally as interesting, most of the time. It’s fairly obvious that they don’t have anything they’re trying to sort through, or they don’t have something important to share. They feel better when their gums are flapping, and why not try to feel better, even if it means you rope in some poor old sap into being your sounding board? Well, I’m not going to be the one to deprive them of their satisfaction. If they want to feel better, then I’m all for it. But I’m not going to mindnumbingly sit through hours of them talking nonsense just so they can manage to find a sense of happiness for the evening. If they’re gonna be happy, why not share a little? So I make fun of the thing they are talking about. They want to talk about their fascination with anvils? Sweet, I’ll start making references to Loony Tunes. But I won’t laugh. The game is to stay as serious as possible, and the goal is to see how long they can keep serious as well before they give in to laughter. Cruel? Nah. They’re talking and having fun, I’m making little jokes in my head and having fun.

When I leave the bar, I go to bed with an immense sense of satisfaction for helping others. I’m just talking to them and showing them that they’re worth it, but the returns on such a deposit are immeasurable. I gain climbing partners with ease. People buy me a beer. I see smiles on those who weren’t wearing them. I have managed to keep my life simple. Very little possessions, few long-term friends, and idle time. Because of how I live my life, it allows me to not worry about tomorrow so I can leave my mind open for who may need to use it today.

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