Having a conversation with purpose demands that you fully tune in to what the other person is saying — even if it’s something you may not want to hear.
We’re born with the ability to communicate with one another. But that doesn’t mean that our innate communication skills can’t use some polish.
After all, listening closely is as much of a skill as speaking clearly.
We sought out the advice of some of the world’s best listeners — journalists — to help boost your listening skills and improve your conversations.
Provide structure, but allow for improvisation too.
Among journalists, authors, podcast producers, and others whose job it is to listen, the consensus is that a good interview walks a fine line between interrogation and conversation.
That is, the interviewer should lead with strong questions, but also be willing to step back and let the interviewee go off-topic. This increases the interviewee’s comfortability — while, at the same time, increasing the odds that they’ll open up.
“[When] you’re really listening … you’re having a dialogue,” journalist Ken Auletta told the Morning Brew podcast. “And you’re taking them into areas maybe they hadn’t been. So you may get some surprising answers.”
At the same time, it’s the interviewer’s job to keep the conversation on track: to know what the underlying purpose of the discussion is and keep things aligned towards that objective. Scripting questions can help.
Max Linksky, an “interviewer of interviewers” for the Longform podcast, recommends doing lots of research prior to the conversation, writing down many questions, and bringing 15-20 of them to the interview.
But while these questions provide structure, you don’t want to hew to them robotically, he advises.
“Only ask 10 of [your questions]. If you need to ask all 20, you’re not having a conversation,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review.
Leave room for silence.
In keeping with the goal of not seeming robotic, it’s essential to leave room for quiet. A major point of consensus among professional interviewers is that some of the best sound bites come from strategic pauses.
The reason is that we’re wired to see conversational pauses as a sign that the other person is unhappy with us. Most people find this deeply uncomfortable and will try to fill the silence.
In trying to lessen their feelings of discomfiture, they can end up revealing something deeply personal.
“Often on a personal or sensitive topic, the best moments come when you let a question float a beat too long,” public radio producer Gina Delvac says.
Pauses aren’t just good for sound bites. They can also, paradoxically, bring you closer to the person you’re speaking with — because you’re making clear that you’re willing to sit back and listen.
At the same time, silence can be awkward for the interviewer as well as the interviewee. To head this off, the interviewer should be willing to lead the conversation no matter how awkward it might get.
If the conversation is a difficult one, you may not be all that confident in your ability to lead through it. New York Times reporter Astead W. Herndon, talking about how he primes himself for tough interviews, believes that having the proper mindset beforehand is essential.
“I learned this from reporting on crime when I was at The Boston Globe. I would get to a scene — a murder, a fire, some deeply emotional scene — and I would sit in the car for a minute and make sure that I was emotionally ready to step into it,” he said.
Check your ego at the door.
Because interviews are, at heart, a conversation, the most productive ones aren’t about “winning” for either the interviewer or the interviewee. Instead, the outcome of a good interview is that a dialogue took place.
The interviewer’s ego, in other words, shouldn’t take center stage.
Small actions on the part of the interviewer — like being as agreeable as possible — can make a big impact. A conversation that’s friendly leads to better, more honest sharing than one that feels adversarial, journalist Auletta says.
“When people are comfortable with someone in a conversation, they tend to be more open,” he told Morning Brew.
Agreeableness also suggests a lack of judgment: another essential element in having a productive dialogue. People will only truly open up when they feel like they’re not being judged.
One smart strategy for displaying non-judgmental behavior is to play dumb. Consider how the subreddit Explain Like I’m Five frames difficult or confusing topics. Better, clearer answers result — because someone who’s explaining something to a child will distill the topic down to its bare essentials.
And at the same time, owning up to one’s own ignorance as an interviewer effectively communicates that there won’t be any judgment.
That’s why “Explain it to me like I’m a (really precocious) kindergartner” is a standby radio question, radio producer Delvac says.
Great conversations begin where your ego ends, so don’t feel like you need to project control over what’s being discussed. By adopting a mentality of judgment-free listening instead, you free both yourself and the other person to actually engage each other.
Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash.