I have spent the majority of my career sitting across from someone who is on camera and asking them to share some of the most intimate details of their life with me. We typically call them ‘interviews’ (though I don’t like the one-sided nature of the word) – and as a young producer, you are taught many things about how it’s supposed to go.
The advice young producers often hear typically boils down to showing that you are paying attention by making eye contact, nodding and throwing in a “mm-hmm” here and there. They instruct you not to interrupt and when the speaker finishes, you are supposed to repeat or paraphrase back what the person said, or even at times say, “that was great.”
The premise is this: listen in a prescribed way to get what you want, something I’ve often seen referred to as “active listening.”
But we all know when someone is ‘actively listening’. I recently read a clever mug that summarized it perfectly: If I say ‘that’s crazy’ more than once during your story… I’m not actually listening!”
Simply put, everyone knows when someone isn’t paying attention to them. Think about a time you were trying to tell a story to someone who was obviously not interested. You started talking more quickly, leaving out details in the process. Or you started spouting irrelevant information or oversharing in an effort to regain their attention. Perhaps you threw in a few fake, yet extravagant details, to see if you can reel them back in. Eventually, though, you probably trailed off while the other person smiled blandly, nodded absently, or said ‘mmhmm’.
They put on a performance, but you both know they’re going to fail a pop quiz if put to the task. In the process, you probably walked away from that encounter feeling frustrated, self-conscious and maybe a little upset with that person. Above all else, you felt isolated.
As author and communication expert Kate Murphy says in one of my favorite books on my bookshelf You’re Not Listening, “People get lonely for lack of listening. Experts are calling it a public health crisis as feeling isolated and disconnected increases the risk of premature death as much as obesity and alcoholism combined. The negative health impact is worse than smoking fourteen cigarettes per day. Epidemiological studies have found links between loneliness and heart disease, stroke, dementia and poor immune function..”
This alone is enough for me to constantly work on truly listening to someone. To teach everyone who produces for us what it really means to listen to someone else; not to get what you want from the conversation, but to learn what’s truly there. We are all fascinated by that which makes us curious… so why not be curious about someone else?
Above all else, I have been constantly surprised by the things people share with me. And all it took was for me to listen and dig a little deeper.
To better understand this process, last night I sat down to record an episode of our soon-to-be published podcast, The Curiosity Blueprint, with Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a renowned psychologist, speaker and best-selling author, and she taught me a much better term for the way we should all be listening to one another: authentic listening.
So, if “active listening” is the art of telling someone you’re listening to them through audial and visual cues, then “authentic listening” is the art of not wasting time, and actually doing it. What I have learned over the years is that real listening requires nothing more than curiosity.
When you’re interrogating someone, you’re sizing them up. Putting them on the spot. “Actively listening” to them to trick them into thinking you care and asking for something without giving anything in return. But, authentically listening to someone means you are adding to the conversation. You are changing the quality of the conversation by caring for it and by the time you and the speaker have found your bond… you can feel the energy in the room changing: alchemy.
So, today, when we are teaching a young producer how to conduct an on-camera ‘interview’, I like to think back to the best advice I have ever received. It comes from one of my earliest mentors in the television world, who remains to this day one of my very closest friends.
Before I traveled to run my first set, and conduct my first interview for The Oprah Winfrey Show, he pulled me into my office and offered this up: “Before the interview, know the details of the other person's story better than they know it themselves. That way, on the day you sit down across from each other, you can spend your energy listening to them, rather than trying to remember what you’re going to say next.”
He changed the trajectory of my career that day. Now, I make a living listening to people. And though it can be taxing (and perhaps borrows from my ability to fully listen at home sometimes), it has brought me a lot of joy to meet so many people around the world and feel as though I am actually getting to know them, understand them and learn from them.
We miss opportunities, we miss stories, we miss a bond when we don’t take the time to just sit back and listen to someone. And when we give them the power of our attention, they find the strength and confidence to be vulnerable… to reveal more about themselves… to show us the person behind the face.
Conversations like this have a way of reminding people we’re not alone in this world… often at a time when they need to be reminded most.
All it takes, is a little bit of listening.