Archive for July 13th, 2007

At school and university, I always dove headfirst into class discussions, excited by ideas and eager to express my own. I was probably a selfish beast, not overly interested in other’s people’s contributions unless they sparked new ideas in me. Although I eventually learned to be less egocentric and more restrained, I’m sure I carried the same tendency into adulthood.

That’s why, when I was interviewed last week about OpenOffice.org’s Calc spreadsheet by CFO Magazine, I was surprised when I had to struggle to give ideas and to say something interesting. The 8AM call had something to do with it, but only a little. Abruptly, I realized that being a journalist and interviewing people myself had actually taught me to listen.

For nearly three years, I’ve done anywhere from three to fifteen interviews per month — mostly on the phone, but occasionally face-to-face as well. By definition, an interview is not about the interviewer — it’s about the person being interviewed. And if I don’t draw the person out, then I am in the annoying position of having to craft an article with too little information. So, I suppose I’m been highly motivated to learn.

It helps, too, that I realized early on not to come into an interview with my own agenda. In one of the first interviews I conducted, I planned to debunk the common opinion about the subject and asked several questions while playing devil’s advocate. The approach made the subject so suspicious of my motivations that he tried to insist on having control over what I wrote — a demand that made the interview unpublishable, since it would have compromised my independence.

From that, I learned that it’s better to ask open-ended questions rather than ones slanted too strongly in one direction. Instead of getting too specific, I let the discussion wend its own way, asking more specific questions mostly for clarification, and changing topic only to assure that all the points I wanted to raise get covered.

The advantage of this tactic is not only that I have to prepare less for most interviews, but that I also consistently get information and slants that I would have missed if I had tried to control the interview more closely, because my subjects are more forthcoming. Even the very reticent, I’ve found, become more forthcoming when allowed to dominate the discussion.

This approach leaves me in the position of a tugboat to an incoming ship, guiding the discussion, but mostly leaving each subject to continue under their own power. About from a few navigational nudges, most of what I have to do is to utter the occasional comment to show that I’m paying attention or, if talking in person, to make sure that I lean forward facing the interview and focusing my eyes on them and keep my eyes on the interviewee to reassure them that I’m listening.

At times, too, I summarize or rephrase what I think the person has said, asking, “Could I say … ” or “Would it be fair to say that …” This tactic has the dual advantage of checking that I have understood and reassuring the interview that I’ve grasped the point.

Of course, often I do have to mention perspectives that the interviewee doesn’t share, so that I can get their reactions. But, instead of treating the interview as a discussion, the way I might have done a few years before, I raise the perspective as a hypothetical one, or observe that “some people say.”

I don’t have to mention the fact that I would be among those who would say what I’m about to mention. As enjoyable as a debate might be, an interview isn’t about me.

I round off these tactics by concluding by asking whether there is anything I’ve left out or that the subject would like to emphasize. Some interviews use these questions as a launching pad for pontifications, but, just as often, I get another two or three nuggets of fact that were previously half-concealed. Often, I get pithy quotes that I can use to attract reader’s interest in the introduction, or that can round-off my article’s conclusion.

When I come to transcribe an interview, another advantage of focusing on listening emerges. Having followed what the subject has said, I know how to punctuate what someone says in order to echo the way that they sound. In this way, the quotes in my articles give readers some sense of what the subject sounds like, although no doubt the experience is overlaid with a heavy veneer of my intonations.

The result of this approach is that, while I’ve often had errors of fact in the finished article pointed out by an interview subject, and people haven’t always approved of the opinions in an article in which they are quoted, I almost never have anyone complain that I misrepresented them. I work hard at being more than a conduit for other people’s ideas but I figure that, if I get what’s said wrong, then the conclusions I draw will be wrong as well.

In fact, now that I think, I realize that I could never do my job — or, at least, not do it as well — if I hadn’t learned a thing or two about listening. If I sometimes miss dominating the discussion, I figure that I was overdue for growing up anyway.

Besides, there are other times that I can be a more active participant. And, when I am, my enjoyment is greater because I’ve learned to pay closer attention to what other people are saying.

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