Yesterday, I was watching one of the nostalgia television shows that seem to be rife at this time of year. A children’s show of the 1990s had a phone-in game, where clues were given and a phrase had to be guessed by the young callers to win a prize. One rule: the phrase had to rhyme.

(Yes, those UK folk who remember such Saturday morning ‘wackiness’ may well know ‘Wonky Donkey’. Even if you weren’t there, does the name give you the idea?)

The presenter admitted that he would often go crazy into the camera lens, yelling at the audience, because each caller seemed not to understand that One. Little. Rule.  Kids called in and then just said anything, with no chance of winning because they just weren’t keeping to that simple statement. Were they not listening?!

It struck me then, just how apt this question is.

How often are we listening, really? We hear soundbites on the news and think we know the whole story. Someone tells an anecdote and we cast our own imprint onto it, subtly changing the tone, so that if we tell it in turn, it’ll be just that little bit different. Chinese Whispers in the everyday.

My partner is regularly frustrated by those who call Emergency Services demanding help, and yet on the basic request for their address, start shouting anything but – including ‘Why aren’t you here yet?’ Because they haven’t given the address, as asked. Such a little thing, subsumed by fear, lack of control, and sheer animal panic.

And yet, we always do know best, don’t we? It’s hard to shake the confidence of some people. You’re told a story that you know isn’t quite true, but when you try to correct the teller, it’s you who’s wrong (even if you were there at the time). The person who wouldn’t give their address may well report that the call-taker was stupid for not knowing (somehow) where he was, or what he wanted… despite this being impossible.

Modern technology doesn’t help. With the constant ‘What is your status?’ demand of social media, our interior monologue is constant, like the film noir voiceover as we narrate our own stories. We are the centre of our worlds, and therefore can’t comprehend data that we don’t understand, fitting it instead somehow into our worldview – even if that makes it very different to the truth. Despite the fact that the world is so complex, understanding any one tiny particle of it is a task in itself. Impossible to sum up in 140 characters.

It sometimes feels to me as if the world shifts with the telling (and mis-telling, and re-telling) of each story. Why does my recollection differ so drastically from what I’m hearing? Why is my knowledge of those ‘facts’ so different? Why does my side of a conversation seem to change in midair, as the response is so unrelated?

Ultimately, one crucial facet of the skill of listening is determining the motivation behind the story, the manner in which it’s told, the goal of the teller. What are they trying to achieve, what feelings do they want to evoke, reactions, emotions? As I said, each person colours their own tale to suit themselves. That’s part of the story. Different words carry different meanings to different people, after all.

We’re told (by Roman historians) that the ancient Bards used amazing mnemonic skills to recall verbatim the ancient sagas, passing on tales, family lineage and history, without tempering it in the slightest with their own personality, not even in the inflections of speech. This is a skill indeed (if true), and one which I think we have largely lost, despite our insistence sometimes on ‘proper’ versions of tales.

But then, I would question the value of such retelling. Is that not the other extreme? From randomly changing a story to not changing it at all? Everything changes, evolves, moves. Our understanding of history is coloured by our modern lives. Is anything we listen to truly neutral? And how valuable would it be if it was?

Part of my original Druid training was to simply listen. The simple part: to go out to a wild place in Nature, and do nothing. Sit and listen. Or walk and listen. Just hear – the birds, the trees, the small creatures, the shouts of children, aeroplanes far overhead. To feel myself in that picture of sound, my place within it, observing while being part of it.

Then the difficult bit: to listen when in the full flow of the everyday world. On train station platforms, in offices, on streets, in marketplaces, at home. The television, the radio, songs. What am I listening to? Why? What does it mean – no, really mean?

A child, screaming in a supermarket. Do you hear his words, what he wants? Or just the noise, as you will him to be quiet?

The simple phrase ‘I’m fine’ from a friend… who clearly isn’t. What are they trying to say, in the tones around the words?

A retelling of a much-loved story – Robin Hood, for example, or King Arthur. Are you hearing the flow of this story, or feeling it shaded by what’s gone before, your own experience of the tale, frustration at perceived errors?

This blog post, like most things I write, is in the hope of inspiring. Not guilt, not at all – we’re all guilty of the above faults, that’s just part of being a human in the world today. But without going back and re-reading, how much did you take in? How much of me did you ‘hear’, over the voice in your own head providing commentary? Were you judging my words, providing your own similar experiences, laughing or disagreeing? The tale is being told, here in black and white as I type. It’s being coloured by you, the reader, as you ‘listen’ to my virtual voice and make it your own.

Listen then, lovely readers, as you go about your life today. Feel the stories going on around you – and your part within that larger flow of time and space. Such a simple thing. Yet such a challenge.

What do you hear – and what do you understand?



  1. nicky said

    Timely! Been a week of misunderstanding with a dear friend. Social medium being the worst problem. No tone of voice with it so easy for the person to put their own interpretation on what you say and visa versa as it happened. Then even just talking to the others, its exactly how you say-its shutting up our own voice and being able to flow with a conversation. Difficult more so when its on the telephone too and then there are some people who make it so difficult. They change the subject so rapidly and cut over the conversation. We all do it, I’ve been a great offender of that one myself. Umm, its reading the silences, pauses, tone of voice etc. Yes its easy, very easy to understand what we want to and not what we should. Good posting thankyou x

  2. Sheli said

    Time for reflection me thinks. Reading this has made me think of what I hear and what I repeat. The written word umm is it really the pen is mightier than the sword. Does that depend on the writer or the reader. Enjoyed this Cat, as usual very well written. Lovely thought provoking words. Thank you x

  3. Vera said

    Especially the one of the screaming child in an aisle… As a mum of a child on the autism spectrum I am berated often if he has a meltdown without anyone willing to understand (funny thing is that as *adults* they lose their temper over a screaming child, when that child should be able to “control” himself….)

  4. Andrew Smith said

    I wonder if we need to learn a listening version of the ‘I see you’ concept (meaning ‘I really, truly, deeply see YOU’) used in Avatar: ‘I hear you’? (ie ‘I really, truly, deeply hear what you are saying’). Listening is a skill, like any other, that needs training and practice (humans are naturally visual animals in evolutionary terms) – hence why trainee counsellors spend so much time learning how to listen effectively. It’s not easy, but very rewarding when you connect on a more than superficial level. And it’s even harder nowadays with so many hi-tech, high-speed ways to (superficially) connect – we are being bombarded by so much information that our brains are losing the ability, I believe, to be able to process anything longer than a tweet or Facebook post.

  5. Andrew Smith said

    PS Love the blog, by the way, Cat – another cracker. Very insightful, as always. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Ramblings over quiche:

    Just read this posting by Cat, and it’s so very apt to and for so many situations and people around me (me included) …. My particular interest is on the conveying of meaning from one person to another.

    I’ve been familiar with active listening for ages, but on reading Cat’s posting I realise that I’d add to this idea of active listening, the idea of active telling: where the active listener attempts to discover the intended meaning or motivation of the teller, the active teller should attempt a complimentary reciprocation: to discover the way of telling that the listener is capable of both understanding and comprehending (nicking your words there Cat), so that the meaning of the narrative can be more accurately conveyed.

    It strikes me that telling should not simply be a disgorging of story, but should be something that is emergent from the dynamic between the teller and his audience. With care on the part of the teller, there can be a discovery of the assumptions, preconceptions, worldview and knowledge level of the listener. With those discoveries, the telling can be remodelled to become more ‘hearable’ so to speak, by the listener.
    So, what I’m getting at is that telling doesn’t need to be a passive ‘letting it all out’, though sometimes this is all that’s possible for a teller in anguish. The inputs doesn’t always need to be on the listener to divine motivations and meaning, but can be a creative dynamic process between the teller and the listener, with the teller being as thoughtful and considerate as the listener.

    So, tell your stories: find a way of telling them in a way that those around you are able to hear more easily; you might even discover a new truth in your own stories.
    (Yup, pinched a bit of your final para as well, Cat …. But is was a good one. Thanks for the inspiration.).

  7. […] a handful of “won’t miss” ones such as Cat Treadwell’s “The Cat Box” – but for the most part, I’ve started breezing through many of the others. […]

  8. Cate said

    Thank you, Cat.

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