Listening to stories

Memory can be vary variable. My memory of childhood is sporadic: some incidents I remember very clearly and others I have no recollection of. One of my siblings will talk about them as if they happened yesterday and leave me amazed at their detailed recall. One indelible memory is of sitting on the arm of the armchair, next to the wireless. Yes, it was a wireless; it was that long ago. I would listen to a children’s radio programme, which was broadcast on the BBC light programme at 1.45 pm, just before Woman’s Hour, and was titled: ‘Listen with Mother’. Every episode would begin with: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. I would then listen to the story, whether my mother was present or absent.

My appetite for stories has remained undiminished ever since. I will often watch Christiane Amanpour’s TV programme. The format is a series of interviews with different people: the first interviews are relevant to the news of the day, but subsequent ones are with a variety of people. I watched at first because it gave me detail and different perspectives, but I have come to realise that I watch because of the stories that are told. I have heard and read of the importance of stories in all areas of human interaction. This has been reinforced recently in a number of ways.

Back in September 2020, Amy Schofield wrote a piece in NDT News on developing inclusive workplace cultures ( I took from this article the importance of allowing people to talk about their experiences and to listen carefully to them. This was reinforced in an interview with the Asian American NBA veteran Jeremy Lin on the Amanpour programme. In talking about how to overcome prejudice he emphasised the need to tell the stories that need to be told, to share in the life experiences of others and to listen to each other. He added that this can bring about real change.

It is a shame that, in general, we often only discover people’s full stories when they have died and we hear a eulogy or read an obituary. NDT News has done a lot to counter this through the ‘People in NDE’ feature ( and through the various columnists, of which I am one, who have a platform to tell our stories. Have you been able to tell your story?

Stories vary in length and depth, from a short illumination (hopefully) of a technical position to a more prolonged description of a lifetime’s influences and impacts, covering every position in between. Understanding a person’s view through their story does not mean that we have to always agree with them, but it broadens our perspective, improves communication by helping to avoid conflict and misunderstanding and leads to better and more innovative outcomes.

A number of years ago, I wrote about the use of stories in a business context. I described how attaching a story to an object offered for sale resulted, on average, in a sale price 2700% higher than the purchase price. Stories place objects in a human context, providing them with significance, and hence they capture the imagination and stir up emotions like any good film or book. Therein lies the rub.

When we listen to a story we tend to respond with our emotions, our own belief systems and our own experience. I am aware that, at times, I will immediately start thinking about what I want to say in reply, rather than hearing the speaker out. I can definitely think of occasions when I have wanted to tell my side of things, only to be frustrated by somebody else’s interruption. I am sure that you can think of both scenarios. Even worse is when the responder, instead of empathising, turns it into a game of Top Trumps!

Another recent interviewee on the Amanpour programme was Tim O’Brien, who wrote a well-known book about his experiences in the Vietnam War. He gives talks trying to persuade people that war is futile. He described how some of his talks have actually persuaded people to join up! He added that you get from a talk, book or TV programme what you bring to it, and that is often validation of what you believe.

So, for stories to be fruitful they have to be properly heard, and that puts an onus on the receiver to actively listen. As we have seen, that is not easy and doesn’t come naturally. We have to work at it. So, whatever the listening scenario, be it business, social or personal, we could do worse than follow the advice from my childhood: “Are you sitting comfortably?”

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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