By Caitlin Kelly
I listen for a living.
Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.
But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.
It’s a challenge!
I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!
My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.
My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.
I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.
The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.
An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.
I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.
To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!)
I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.
The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.
Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.
Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.
When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:
cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)
prior research (to know what to ask)
patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)
editing as we go (see above!)
attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition
Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:
Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”
Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.
Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)
Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.
We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.
Jose and I talk to one another a lot.
It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.
18 thoughts on “Listening well”
I love your last sentence. M and I do a lot of talking and savour our long-distance driving as this is a time when we are uninterrupted in our conversations.
As an administrator I do a lot of what you have listed here, and especially now, I feel like a counsellor, too. Plunged into on-the-job, under-the-gun training. I now should be able to write a test and hang out my shingle. 🙂
So true….it’s a 5.5 hour drive from our place to the Ontario border (near Kingston) and we love to catch up. This isolation has prompted a lot of new conversations.
For sure! The best managers really do listen and care. I bet it’s hard!
It’s been difficult – quite draining .
I’m going to remember that quote, “We’re never wrong about what we like or dislike.” and how to listen. Thanks . . . just saying, Claudia
It was interesting for me to really think about why a 90-minute video interview can be really enjoyable — but tiring!
Therapists have 50-minute hours for a reason.
and you are so right. your last line says it all. many people have mastered the art of talking, but not nearly as. many have mastered the art of listening.
There is no resource as precious as attention.
It is very powerful to be really listened to. Both Jose and I grew up not being listened to very much, so we know how much it matters.
This reminded me of a podcast I listened to yesterday, presented by Laurie Santos (a professor of psychology at Yale), about focused attention and being happier. There’s scientific research that proves the proximity of our phones is stealing a little bit of our brain’s attention. Even if we’re having dinner, for instance, and we’re not actively using our phone, its mere presence is disruptive on a subconscious level. I think I’ll start leaving my phone in a different room!
For sure! I know it’s a generational thing, but no one I know looks at their phone (pre covid) when we were together for coffee or a meal. It’s rude! Not for younger people, I know.
I often leave my phone at home. I have nothing that urgent to stay on top of,. so if I miss something for a few hours, the world won’t end.
I agree, it is rude. I keep my phone in my handbag when I’m out with friends (not at the moment, of course. I’m missing coffee catch-ups), but it’s the norm for most people my age to put their phones on the table.
I’m Ok with it on the table…just not looked at!
Listening is not an easy skill to master. In my last job, I always tried to figure out what people weren’t saying. What topics were they trying to avoid? Did they answer my question? I had to listen for what they aren’t saying.
So true! The silences and omissions are interesting.
I think we also have to think like detectives.
Yes! Teaching new writers to learn to interview–listening well is the key thing to focus on. Many errors in writing are because the writer was not paying enough attention–and sources will always give you more if they sense you’re really tracking what they say rather than sticking with your preconceived notions of what a story will turn out to be. Excellent post.
So true…My interviews usually go very long — 60 to 90 minutes. I would rather give someone a lot more time and attention (if they are willing) as it signals how important they are to the story.
Interesting post. Sometimes we get confused by hearing and listening and yes it is an art and can be quite difficult sometimes . Lovely read as always
I think especially now we’re all so distracted! If someone is looking at their phone while I’m speaking (if we’re together! — I stop. It’s not something I want to compete with. And I give my full attention as well.