What Are The Steps To Take To Fill In The Story In Front Of You


Wednesday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story. – Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

In the last post in this Listen book project I looked at tools for taking notes in order to understand a situation and start to work towards creating methods for doing this effectively in the situations we face.

A field that has much to offer when it comes to understanding how this is done is ethnography – the branch of anthropology that studies a people, society and culture from their point of view.

At the heart of an ethnograpic study is fieldwork – you must go out and immerse yourself in the society you are studying, become a part of it and try to experience it as they do, while remembering that you are also there are an observer and must eventually describe what is going on.

These two roles can be tricky to manage.

And that’s because your ability to use tools and methods will first depend on the environment you’re entering.

Your environment determines your options

Let’s look at some situations where you might need to listen carefully to make sense of what’s going on.

Your children or other family members might be distraught, wanting something or worrying about something.

You might be preparing for a sales meeting with a prospect you really want to land.

You may be dating someone from another culture and this are about to experience your first family festival.

You’re researching inner city gang culture and have arranged a meeting with a leading local gangster.

In some of these situations you’re not going to be able to bring along a notebook or a computer.

People will think you’re rude if you stop in the middle of festivities to take notes on what’s going on.

Or your gang member will have conditions on what you can record or say because they don’t trust you yet.

In these situations all you can take away is what you see and hear and remember in your head.

In many other situations, however, it is helpful and even expected for you to take notes and even co-create a record of what is going on.

For example, when my children were young and were really upset about something I found that trying to talk to them through the flood of tears didn’t really work.

Instead I would start drawing pictures of what had happened – something we called “drawing a story” and use that to talk through the situation.

But before we look at co-creation let’s look at how an ethnographer might go about entering and listening to what is going on.

What should you notice and when?

In their book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw, the authors describe the kinds of things you should be jotting down as soon as possible.

The model below tries to describe the approach they’re recommending.


The first thing you have to do is tune into your sense impressions, see what is there for what it is and rely on all your senses for information.

For example, in a business context you can get a feel for culture – you’ll face different approaches if you are in a boardroom filled with suits than if you’re in a plantroom talking to operators.

What’s around you has a huge impact on what is happening.

With your children, for example, before you react to what they do you should probably tune into how tired they are, how late in the day it is, whether it’s before or after school.

All these things will affect how resilient they are and how much or little it will take for them to get upset about something.

From a cultural context are you entering a quiet, sober affair or is it a noisy, joyful thing?

Now, it’s worth focusing this on situations where you are trying to work with someone else or a team of others – perhaps you’re trying to do business together or work on a strategy to solve an issue you are facing.

What you’re going to do is focus on events and happenings – the flux of every day life that the people in face in the situation that you’re jointly exploring.

For example, if you sell digital commerce solutions you want to explore what they’re doing and facing when it comes to online sales.

And that means talking through their experience, the events they remember and how they see things as happening.

Now, if you spend all your time talking you’ll miss something important – which is what they see as important.

What you want to do is get the people involved to pick out what they see as crucial.

For example, if you’re trying to sell your solution you may spend most of your time talking about technology and features and benefits.

But the important thing you’d have learned, if you had encouraged others to tell you what they saw as important, might have been that the people who control the budget are not at the table and you really need to persuade them that you can guarantee payback within a year.

And here’s the crux of the skill you need to have to listen – you have to let people tell you what they see as important but you might have to infer it from what you see them seeing, what they talk about and how they seem to feel about it.

The questions you ask and the connections you make will help you make sense of what’s going on – they will help you see what kind of meaning the people involved are making of their situation.

Now, why is this crucial.

It’s because no one cares what you think – they’re immersed in their own worlds thinking what they think.

If you want to work with them or understand them better you have to start with where they are, not where you are.

You have to truly see things from their point of view.

Making a change

Now, when you are at a point where you are able to appreciate someone else’s world from their point of view – that is when you can add your own perspective to the picture.

For example, if your child is upset and you tell them what to do you’ll be astonished to find that you haven’t helped at all.

Instead, encourage them to talk to you – listen to them describe what’s in their minds and what’s upsetting them.

Listen without interrupting, except to ask questions and don’t deny their feelings by saying things like, “That’s not the case now, is it?”

You’ll find that the process of talking with you and seeing that you are really listening will help to calm them down and then eventually, when they’ve got everything off their chest, that’s when you might be in a position where you can add what you think, make suggestions that they could consider for how to move forward.

This process is no different when you’re dealing with adults – bar perhaps the crying and tantrums.

Although those can happen as well.

The point is that before people will be ready to listen to what you have to say they first need to know that you care.

And one way of caring is to give people the time to talk through things with you, to get it clear in their own heads how they think and feel about something.

If you listen to them then they will, eventually, be ready to listen to you.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time so far in this series of posts talking in general terms about listening and how important it is.

For this to be useful I think we need to look at a number of specific cases and the kinds of issues you might face, and I’ll need to draw on my own experiences over time.

Let’s look at some of those situations over the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

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