Farewell to “The Story,” with Listening Lessons from Mr. Gordon and Some Maasai Visitors

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On October 11, Dick Gordon recorded his last episode of The Story. He’s moving back to Canada to be closer to family, and so ends the radio show’s 8-year run.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Gordon’s interviewing and listening skills, and I’ll miss catching his new installments from time to time.

After his last segment, Gordon recorded about 4 minutes on his philosophy of getting people to share their stories. The piece is entitled “Goodbye.” In it he talks about listening with patience:

There is a natural pause after the first part of an answer to a question. I ask you what it was like going for a walk with your grandfather, and you say, “It was nice. Not too cold. We had a good talk.” And if I wait, and if I don’t feel like I have to fill that pause and jump in with something else, that’s when you’re most likely to say, “He told me this story that I’d never heard before.”

“So that’s my conclusion,” he says, “after more than 36 years of talking on the radio, that the best thing I can do is not talk but listen. That’s when you hear the best stories.”

In another short audio post for The Story, this one from December 11 of last year, radio producer Marika Partridge talks about what she learned from a group of Maasai performers. As a child, she had spent a month camping with her family among the Maasai on the plains of Kenya. Years later, she was asked to interrupt her harried routine and host a group of Maasai singers and dancers coming to her home town of Takoma Park, Maryland. She consented and was glad she did. The experience broke through the busyness of her daily life and taught her about “conversation and caring”:

“Our way of life is really very strong on adhering to the word of mouth,” says the leader of the performing group. “When we speak to one another, we say we feed each other. We nourish each other spiritually.”

In “Saying Yes to Visitors,” Partridge shares the new perspective she gained:

Do I connect with the people I meet every day? Most of the time, other people seem like stumbling blocks, preventing me from getting to my next appointment. If I slowed things down and connected in this Maasai way maybe I could rediscover how to experience humanity as more than a series of interruptions.

Goodbye to The Story.

Goodbye Mr. Gordon. Enjoy your long conversations with family and friends—old and new—in Canada.

The Story is dead. Long live the stories.

[photo: “Listen,” by Jay Morrison, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listen to the Stories: Learning from Dick Gordon

6791137654_4a5b012e71_nI nominate Dick Gordon to be America’s first Listener Laureate.

Gordon is host of “The Story,” an hour-long show broadcast on many public radio stations five days a week.

Everybody has a story to tell. Everybody. But it takes time to hear it. The longer we listen, the more we learn about peoples and groups and cultures. And the longer we listen, the more we learn about individuals who are unlike anyone else around them.

Gordon’s soothing voice has rounded edges, and his style is unhurried. His questions invite his guests to speak at their own pace. He allows them to meander a little, since the place they end up is often better than where the question was pointing. “The Story” isn’t hard news. While we do learn facts from listening in, we learn more about the people who are living out those facts.

According to Gordon’s page at the show’s website, the idea for “The Story” came from a train ride through the former Soviet Union, while he was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

On his way to interview a government official, Dick walked the train aisles and spoke to passengers. One by one, he heard their stories, and he realized that what they had to say was way more interesting and illuminating than any interview with any politician. It was a seed, and he tucked it away.

Born in Ontario, Gordon has had a reporting career that has taken him “from South Africa to India, and Moscow to Iraq,” and he often has guests who tell  first-hand stories from their own experiences around the globe. A couple weeks ago, Gordon talked with Iraqi-born Azzam Alwash, who became a civil engineer in the US and has returned to Iraq to restore the marshlands along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, drained by Saddam Hussein to drive out the people who lived there. Earlier, he also talked with Sokeel Park, of the NGO Liberty, about how people in North Korea are using illegal cell phones to communicate beyond their borders and outside the reach of their totalitarian government.

But the interviews from April 23rd are the ones that caught my attention. They’re with people here in the US. These people aren’t movers and shakers on the world stage, and that’s what makes their time wtih Gordon so poignant.

The first is a conversation with Nita Gerik, the 88-year-old widow of the former chief of the volunteer fire department in West, Texas, site of the terrible explosion that killed 14. Gerik was planning to attend every funeral. Gordon talks with her son, Jim, as well. (West, Texas, Is Home)

Then there’s Damion Roberts, a firefighter and bagpipe player who was taking part in a ceremony at Baylor University honoring the 11 first responders who died in West. (Amazing Grace)

And then Gordon interviewed Dotan Negrin, who travels the country—and to places as far away as Panama—with his upright piano, playing for whomever is willing to listen. (A Man and His Piano)

The kind moments that make these conversations special to me are these:

Gordon isn’t afraid of waiting in silence. The pauses at the end of sentences let his guests think and turn and move in new, natural directions.

He says things like “You must be . . . (as in “You must be very proud”) and “Sounds to me like . . . ,” entering into the moment and giving affirmation to the emotions involved.

He has questions that make his guests respond, “That’s actually really funny that you ask that. . . .” They know that he understands what they’re talking about, and they know that he deserves to hear more.

When Mrs. Gerik tells him, “They’re going to have one every day,” Gordon says he doesn’t understand and asks her what she means, because truly understanding is better than seeming to understand. And when Mrs. Gerik replies, “Funeral,” he apologizes. His apology is left as part of the interview, because heartfelt apologies lead to heartfelt responses that give even more depth to our stories.

I look forward to learning more from Gordon about how to listen well as I catch more of his work. “The Story” is produced by North Carolina Public Radio and distributed by American Public Media. Past episodes are archived under the heading “Stories: The language we all speak.”

If you’ve not seen it, or if you’d like to watch it again, here’s a video put out by Chick-fil-A, reminding us that “Every Life Has a Story.” Here’s to taking the time and the effort to listen to them.

[photo: “Vintage Microphone,” by Juliana Luz, used under a Creative Commons license]