Really, truly listening (is harder than ever)

Our senses don’t all operate at the same speed. As it turns out, our sense of hearing is faster than our other senses. It’s a survival mechanism: We are attuned to sounds that might pose a threat.

Layer on a bunch of distractions (like the TV, a person nearby having a loud cell phone conversation, the whoosh of an espresso machine in a cafe) and attentive, careful listening gets very difficult. If you’ve ever done a phone interview in the middle of the noisy Missourian newsroom, you know what I’m talking about.

Hearing is easy, says Seth Horowitz in this excellent piece from the New York Times. On the other hand…

Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.

Talk about information overload! Let me tell you a story about my recent trip to San Antonio. I was getting on a very crowded Southwest Airlines flight in St. Louis when I learned there was no more room for carry-on bags in the overhead compartments. The flight attendant told me I would have to check my bag, and she asked me where I was headed.

“San Antonio,” I said, looking her straight in the eye. (People listen more carefully when you look right at them, it seems to me.)

She nodded and I went off to find a seat. Behind me, passengers were thrusting their bags at her and calling out destinations. I got into my seat uneasily, thinking, how could she possibly keep all of that straight in her mind and get the right tag on my bag with all of those other passengers demanding her attention?

A little while into the flight, she came by to get drink orders, and I asked her — just checking — where she’d tagged my bag to go, and she smiled with satisfaction.

“Austin,” she said. “Just like you told me.”

I am sure all the color drained out of my face. “No,” I said. “I actually told you I’m going to San Antonio, and I have a presentation at 8 a.m., so I really really really need that bag.”

She blanched. “I’ll fix this,” she said.

And she did, though it took some serious effort on my part to make sure the bag they plucked off the conveyor belt under the plane was actually mine and that it actually got tagged for San Antonio.

“San Antonio,” a man standing next to me said, sympathetically. “Doesn’t really sound much like Austin, does it.”

Listening, as you surely have discovered this semester, is the killer app. It’s crucial to good conversations with your editor, and to good interviews, which are crucial to good journalism. Respect the process by giving yourself every chance of success. That means removing distractions, making adjustments when necessary and asking for a do-over, if you missed something (“I’m sorry — can you run that by me one more time?”).

What have you noticed about good listening this semester in the course of your reporting? I’d love to hear (and really listen to) your thoughts in the comments here, or on your blog.

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10 Responses to Really, truly listening (is harder than ever)

  1. Pingback: Listening « lexcartee

  2. Pingback: Listen to This | So, what's your story?

  3. I really enjoyed the Times piece. For my response, I wrote about listening in relation to dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary in science reporting:

  4. Chris Long says:

    Like a lot of people my age (or so I am told) I think I do have a hard time listening. At any point in a conversation there are what seems to me an almost infinite number of ways to be distracted by something else, someone else or just get distracted by my own thoughts.

    And that’s assuming there ISN’T a computer in front of me.

    Especially at first, I had a hard time listening to sources. I speculate there were two primary reasons for that.

    I come from a radio broadcasting background and the type of interviewing I was doing then was completely different than the type of interviewing I do now.

    In fact, their response was secondary to how I presented the question. Personally, I didn’t much care for what they said as long as I sounded articulate when I asked the question. I’d often tune out their response and focus on how I wanted to ask the next question.

    The other bad habit I’ve had to break-or are at least I’m in the habit of breaking- is staying interested enough to listen to the full answer. Especially over the phone, my instinct is to hear the direct answer to a question and then tune out “what I don’t really need to hear” while I think about how awesome it’s going to be when I take a nap later on.

    Public officials, in my experience, are notorious for giving me way more information than I need. Or at least more than what I think I need.

  5. Pingback: Listening: the forest and its trees « Tripp Stelnicki

  6. I get a little frazzled when I’m in a situation where I can’t hear very well. I try to slow down and get to a quieter place if I can. I also like to try and review what they told me before we get off the phone. I think it’s hard in a noisy environment to really listen well and ask good follow up questions because I get so focused on not being able to hear.

  7. Reblogged this on Vital Signs and commented:
    If you’ve yet to learn that listening is a skill — a quite important retentive skill — read this post and the article linked within. If you still don’t get it, do more research.

  8. Little Voice says:

    Having graduated with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for many years, your advice is spot on. Cry, laugh, listen, work, and write, write, were.

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