Everyone has a story, but not everyone feels safe telling it. If you want to give people dignity, listen to them.
I am the father of two girls. One is eight, the other six. They have taught me many things.
While I might not know enough about fatherhood to write a book, I know a listening father is a good father.
I have come to see that one of the arts of fatherhood is getting my children to talk about themselves.
My two bundles of joy have taught me that listening is the ability to enter someone else's world, and then engage with that world from the inside.
So, I devised a way to enter my daughters' worlds with the sole objective of listening to their little hearts. We call it the Bedtime Story.
Each night, after the day has been long, I crawl into bed with them. The Bedtime Story has become an enshrined constitutional right in our family. I owe them at least 20 minutes, otherwise I am in breach of trust (and liable to be sued for make-up time and other punitive damages).
Little do they know that the Bedtime Story is actually my master-plan. It is really just the excuse to engage in conversation with them. A nightly story with Dad is just the thing to turn the lock of their little hearts.
Good stories have characters my daughters can relate to, characters that are easier to talk about than their own lives.
Good stories get children talking about themselves as they identify themselves in the characters. They process the story through the only lens they have — their own lives.
Through their eyes
Very soon they are musing and pontificating with all the language of children, yet all the emotions of adults. They freely volunteer their own fears, hopes, foibles, and secret intentions. It is just the raw material a father needs.
I ask probing questions. “Why do you think the hobbit said that to the dwarf?”
Answer: “The hobbit was feeling sad because the dwarf was mean to him.” (This is a reference to the reprobate on the school bus who teases my youngest).
“And what do you think a hobbit should do when a dwarf is being nasty to it on a long journey?”
“Don't know. But maybe the hobbit cried.”
“Ella, do you ever have people who are nasty to you...?”
And so we end up talking about the ogres and trolls in her little world. And finding solutions together.
A good story gives my daughters the vocabulary they need to talk about themselves.
The Bedtime Story is my moment to give them the feeling that I am paying attention to who they are as people and what they are facing.
It is my duty to carve out a daily slot in their geography (not mine) where I put tools into their hands to make themselves heard. The Bedtime Story is my turn to convert little voices into important voices.
Good at listening?
Now that my personal indulgence is over, allow me to make the real point of this piece about the world we live in.
Here's the question: How good are we as a society at listening to others? Do we hear but not listen? Do we get people — especially those who are different from us — to talk about themselves?
A world of listeners is a better world.
You could be a parent or schoolmaster. You could be a government. You could be in management of a corporation or a foreman on a yard. You could be a member of a majority race or culture group. You could employ a domestic helper or be in control of some hegemony, big or small.
Or you could be a child, a student, a citizen, an employee, a labourer, a minority or a migrant wage-earner.
Whatever pigeon-hole you occupy, there are people in other pigeon-holes who are crying out to be heard.
What is your child facing? What is your student's struggle? What are your citizens' needs? What are your employees' frustrations? What will benefit your staff? What injuries does a vulnerable minority group nurse? What will improve your helper's lot?
You might not be able to solve everything, but often when people feel understood it brings a healing touch.
Your Bedtime Story
The world is full of bleeding people whose wounds — though visible — are strangely inconspicuous and who live in other categories that you don't occupy. They want to be heard.
If you want to build people up, give them dignity. If you want to give people dignity, listen to them.
Categories will always exist. Yet by listening we are communicating — communicating that no category is less important.
What's the Bedtime Story in your universe?
What's the golden key that will get someone foreign to you talking about himself? What tool do you have to unlock someone else to get her talking?
Everyone has his story to tell, but not everyone feels safe doing so. Not everyone feels the words she uses will be heard, let alone properly understood.
I have a dream of a better world: it is a world filled with Bedtime Stories. A better world is filled with listeners.
May we all live in a real “happily ever after”.