Really truly listening is harder than ever

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 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.

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4 Responses to Really truly listening is harder than ever

  1. annerogers97 says:

    I showed up at a house, host to an elite wrestling club, yesterday to do an interview with some wrestlers. We stepped outside because the house was noisy, and I wanted to be able to hear them. It was cold out, but the two wrestlers said it was fine and we went on with it. About halfway through the interview I saw one guy rubbing his hands, and I thought, ‘Oh no, it’s too cold. I feel bad. We should have done this inside, etc.’ In thinking that, I missed the answer of the other guy. I found myself nodding and moving on to another question I had, thinking I would just hear his answer on the recording later. Well, I just listened to the recording. What he said warranted a follow up question, which I will now be doing tomorrow afternoon. If I would have focused on him the entire time, I would have been able to ask that follow-up question. I find it hard to balance the line of observing everything around me during an interview – the scene, body language, etc. – and really focusing on every word the interviewee is saying. How do we manage that?

    • reedkath says:

      When I realize that I’ve been distracted or lost my train of thought, I admit it if I think I can get away with it — that is, if the person won’t be offended that my attention lapsed. When the subject is very serious, I make sure that this doesn’t happen. I think it’s inexcusable to lose focus when someone is telling a very sensitive or sad story.

      But when it’s not so serious, it’s usually okay to admit distraction. People understand because it has happened to them. I am easily distracted, even as an adult, because I notice EVERYTHING (so you asked the right person this question). I guess you could have just said, Hey, sorry about that but I got distracted for a second… could you run that last part by me one more time? (insert sheepish smile).

  2. Tessa Weinberg says:

    I find it difficult to always be actively listening when I’m at long hearings at the statehouse. Many times I’ll simply check out mentally until the bill I was there for pops up. I’m probably missing out on interesting tidbits of info on other bills that could maybe generate more story ideas. But I’m not sure how to balance 3 hour long hearings with staying alert the whole time. Especially with lawmakers sometimes when they use jargon I don’t understand, or cite a fact I’m not sure about, sometimes I’ll just assume I can look it up later. That can be a dangerous line to walk though when they most likely have the expertise to explain it concisely and simply for me or point me in the right direction to look up more. Asking them to clarify might help show them that I was actively listening and want to learn more, rather than simply sitting their and nodding my head.

  3. Marta says:

    I like to think that I listen well, but what gets me is when an interviewee is giving a great but long answer. Often, towards the beginning of their answer a follow up question will pop in my mind and I’ll try to hold on to it, but then they say something else that needs a follow up question and I try to hold that as well and before I know it, I’m no longer truly listening to their answer because I’m worried about forgetting my questions. That, or I am actively listening and when they stop talking I’ve forgotten the majority of my follow up questions.

    I’ve noticed that this happens to me more frequently when the interview is in a loud or busy place making it hard for me to focus.

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