I’m fascinated by listening and what goes wrong — and right — in human communication. And over the years, my conviction has grown that listening is if not the secret than one of the secrets to great interviews.
I bet Julian Treasure would agree. He studies and consults with companies on listening, and he did a beautiful, thought-provoking TED talk on the subject that you must listen to before Tuesday’s class (and please do it to the exclusion of all other activities; it’s just 7 minutes long). He believes listening is under siege from so many directions, and I couldn’t agree with him more.
He also talks about “listening positions,” which should resonate with those of you who have done a lot of interviews. Sometimes, you want to be reductive. Other times, expansive. Sometimes, interviewing requires us take a more critical posture; other times, a more sympathetic one.
No matter what, we risk being wrong — slightly wrong, pretty wrong or really, way-in-left-field wrong — when we don’t listen carefully. I bet bad listening accounts for three-quarters of all errors in journalism.
It’s also good to know that 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 something that happened to me on a recent trip. 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 off she went.
“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 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 your ability to really listen? I’d love to hear (and really listen to) your thoughts in the comments here, or on your blog.