A friend and I have been obsessed this summer with Castle Rock, a Hulu miniseries unfolding in real time, slowly, week by week, despite the fact that it’s available on a streaming platform.
That’s old school.
While network television and a few cable shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld still release episodes on a weekly schedule, waiting seven whole days between episodes is surprisingly uncomfortable. We can’t wait to get to the end. We want stories; we want them now; we don’t actually seem to care all that much (or pay attention to) what happens in the middle.
My friend and I were darned proud of ourselves when a “big plot twist” was revealed this week. We’d been carefully watching (and listening) for nine weeks. We’d assembled a logical theory after week four based on what we’d seen; with one week left to go, we’re pretty sure it’s going to pan out. The morning after the Big Reveal, she emailed to say, “We’re so smart!”
But I don’t think we’re particularly smart. I simply think the deliberate pace of the show’s release facilitated paying attention, which is a basic listening skill.
Maybe skipping to the end isn’t always best.
In a story, in a conversation, in a sandwich, the middle is where the meat is.
The Neurochemistry of the Car Chase
The way we increasingly consume entertainment—the hypnotic, sofa-locked binge—could be making us less patient about our conversations as well.
Let’s take a step backward for historical perspective. How many people do you know who say their management or problem-solving style is “no-nonsense,” “get-to-the-point,” or “cut-to-the-chase?” (Also, why do they always seem to think that’s a good thing?)
While it’s easy to speculate that we’re only just now losing the ability to focus—to listen—to be patient and wait for it— the phrase cut to the chase was born in the days of silent films. Hal Roach Sr., the studio executive who brought us Laurel and Hardy and the Little Rascals, used to urge writers to skip all the “stuff in the middle” (which he thought would bore audiences) and get right to car chases.
While Hal Roach couldn’t have known it at the time, the payoff of car chase scenes are rooted in neurobiology. Exciting scenes create little neurochemical payoffs. The most primitive part of the brain—the amygdala, or the “lizard brain”—is the seat of our most ancient emotional fight-or-flight threat response. It also coordinates releases of dopamine as we see or hear emotionally charged events (i.e., stories). And dopamine, according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “…greatly aids memory and information processing[;] you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’”
So, memorable (threatening/exciting) scenes tend to bulldoze the “dull” stuff in the middle in order to press the dopamine lever in our amygdala. Is it any wonder, then, that megamillion-dollar blockbusters often seem to lurch from explosion to car chase to the hero dangling off a building from a length of dental floss?
Slow Down and Listen to the Full Story
How did my friend and I predict the big twist in episode 9 all the way back after we’d watched episode 4?
We used our basic listening skills. (And yes, there are also advanced listening skills—you can practically earn a Ph.D. in listening skills. I probably have at least half a master’s by now because I’ve been a student of Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training work on Active Listening via L.E.T for fifteen years, and I learn something new about listening every month).
Basic Listening skills include:
- Attending behaviors: Eyes forward. Phones down. Be present. Attend to the subject at hand. These may seem simple, but they’re maddeningly uncommon in both interpersonal and entertainment contexts. “Wait, when did that guy show up at the spooky house?” “When you were checking Twitter.”
- Silence: During each week’s episode, my obsessed friend and I agreed: We would not interrupt each other’s viewing with texts or emails or metadiscussion about our theories. Good call. (In real-time conversations, silence makes room for those who need time to gather and package their thoughts to do so without pressure).
- Simple Acknowledgments: “Yes! That made sense and it totally tied in with what we were saying about XYZ four weeks ago!” “Yeah.”
- Door Openers: “Want to have lunch and talk about it?” “YESSSSSSS”
Scene by scene, arc by arc, point by point, motivation by motivation: patient listening rewards listeners (and their amygdala-based dopamine dispensers) far more than a race to the end. Those rewards include a more thorough understanding of stories, interpersonal dynamics, and most importantly, potential pathways to a resolution.
We tell stories as a way to entertain each other, but we also tell stories as a way to grapple with and solve problems. It has been ever thus. This is why attorneys weave narratives rather than simply handing juries reams of evidence. (There is a reason the courtroom drama remains a staple of entertainment; it wraps a story within a story. It’s a story burrito: dopamine within dopamine.)
Embrace Slow Stories and Listening
Racing through real-world conversations the way some folks binge shows for “efficiency,” at 1.5x speed, is no way to build human relationships. And “cut to the chase” may be a fine ethic if you’re constructing short comedy films in the 1940s, but it’s unlikely to produce a satisfying, emotionally healthy relationships.
Human interaction has never been strictly about efficiency, no “nonsense,” skipping to the end, or cutting to the chase.
The goal of telling and listening to stories is never to get to the end (of the conversation, the problem-solving, the brainstorming) as quickly as possible.
The goal is to arrive at the best possible end, listening to the full story to make sure we didn’t miss any critical details—so when the big reveal finally happens, we can be the ones saying, “That makes complete sense,” rather than “OMG, what just happened? My mind is blown!”