Think that as a journalist you’re a great listener and questioner? Think again — then do something about it.

March 21, 2019
Category: Business & Work

When was the last time you felt like someone really listened to you and then asked you questions that helped you better understand yourself? You remember it when it happens.

When we talk about leadership with journalists at Poynter, we often ask them to identify the best boss they ever had and then share the traits that made him or her deserve the title. The exercise elicits an admirable list of attributes — more positives than can ever be attached to one person.

It’s rare that “great listener” doesn’t make the list. If it doesn’t emerge, we add it to acknowledge the power of a listener.

It is an attribute of leadership that you can improve with practice and an awareness of your habits. Its effect is potent. Listening connotes respect.

Amanda Ripley, an author and contributor to the Atlantic, has recently written and talked about how she listens differently since working on a story for the Solutions Journalism Network about how journalists might be helpful in bridging our polarized politics. She makes a case that journalists aren’t as studied in listening, interviewing and clarifying others’ values as we could be.

I attended a conference at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, in mid-March where Ripley spoke about her experience and then participated in a workshop for participants to learn listening and interviewing tactics. We were asked to think of a tense dispute or a recent conflict with someone. Ripley listened to me talk about an interaction I’d had with a colleague. I described the situation in about four sentences. She paid attention to my words in characterizing the event and then asked short, focused questions. She watched my face and noted where I turned emphatic. She kept questioning and restating until she heard me say: “Yes, exactly.” This exercise took maybe seven minutes.

I had never heard myself clearly say why that interaction still bothered me. Ripley’s empathetic questions and reflections gave me insight.

Ripley said that she thought her 20 years of journalism experience had honed her listening and interviewing skills. And then she received mediation training from Gary Friedman, a lawyer, experienced mediator and co-founder of the Center for Understanding in Conflict .

She changed her work habits.

“I had to actually listen to what they were saying, not just think of my next question,” she told the Charlotte audience.

She now practices “looping for understanding,” a term that involves distilling, restating and reflecting back to the person she is interviewing. She checks to ensure she captured the interviewee’s statements correctly. She keeps restating and reflecting and looping until she hears someone say “yes,” or “exactly,” just as I did. She focuses on illuminating what’s behind strong or unexpected words, superlatives and nonverbal cues. It sounds self-evident to some journalists, but this isn’t often what we practice. We interview for the quote; we get the quote and post the story. Looping isn’t about getting an accurate quote; it’s about getting deeply held beliefs portrayed accurately.

She also is curating with other journalists a list of questions that help her move underneath conflict — to a person’s values, beliefs and experiences. An example: “How has this conflict affected your life?” And “What is oversimplified about this issue?”

Repetition matters. “You don’t ask important questions just once,” Ripley said. “People don’t actually articulate their innermost feelings with 100 percent clarity on the first attempt.”

Leaders of journalists — not just reporters — can learn from these practices. If you’re a supervisor, you are in charge of someone’s success and growth. Maybe no one told you that explicitly when you took the job, but embedded in that supervisory title is stewardship to the organization, care for the people who work with you and resolve to take initiative on both of those responsibilities. Listening to your employees is essential to understanding what they expect of themselves, what they need from you and what gives meaning to their work. You don’t ask important questions just once.

Or maybe you don’t feel like you are being heard as a leader, especially when financial pressures bring about difficult choices. Here are other lessons that Ripley shared: “Facts do not persuade in high conflict” and “people will not listen until they feel heard. Literally or figuratively.”

“If your goal is persuasion, you have to start with a relationship,” she said. “Trust precedes facts.”

If you’re an editor, that’s key advice. Listening can help you earn trust, and nothing is more important than that.

Advice for better listening:

  • Understand: Listen for what seems to matter most to the person you’re interviewing: Pay attention to strong words (“I felt sick to my stomach.”), metaphors (“like an earthquake”) and superlatives (worst, best) and nonverbal cues (a slower, quieter voice).
  • Communicate: Distill what you think the person meant, in the most elegant language you can muster. “So you were disappointed by the mayor’s actions because you care deeply about what happens to the kids in this school.”
  • Check: “Does that sound right?”
  • Correct: If the person says no, ask them to fill in what you missed or didn’t capture accurately.
  • Check again: If you get a small nod or anything other than a “yes,” or “exactly,” try again. “It sounds like I didn’t quite get it. What did I miss?”

Source: Catherine Conner, Center for Understanding in Conflict

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  • Excellent article. This article generally for journalists but I also learned many things for it. You have explained things very clearly and deeply, So I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for publishing this article.
    Cassandra Shepard