Like therapy

Listen carefully

I recently did a phone interview with a fairly big cheese at a multinational firm. When I thanked him at the end for his time, he returned the sentiment, saying it had been ‘a bit like therapy’.

Not that he’d divulged anything particularly personal or difficult (I’m not that good). We’d been talking about how others see his role, what motivated him, his thoughts about the wider sustainability movement. All work-related topics but, I suppose, ones closely connected to his personal identity.

I think/hope the comment was meant positively. Either way, it suggested that the experience of talking about himself for 40 minutes wasn’t an everyday one.

It reminded me how rare it is to just let the other person do all the listening – even for the kind of people that get invited to speak on panels and have the daily ear of a high-profile CEO. And: that most people will happily spend time talking about whatever it is they’ve chosen to dedicate most of their waking hours to, if someone else shows enough interest.

Partly, it’s the joy of being asked to expand on all the nerdy detail. Even the people who love you most in the world, after all, will generally get bored at some point. And partly, I think, it’s being asked to explain the basics in a way that you don’t often do in your day job (like: Why do you do it like that? Why is that different from X? How does it compare to Y?) – because among your peers those things are already taken for granted. Those questions can be hard to answer when speaking to a non-specialist, but it can push the respondent to find new ways to explain things, or to think about things from a different angle.

And, as the author of a new book on listening puts it, “It’s rare that people don’t interrupt and shift conversation to themselves.” That’s not the case during interviews: journalists don’t often waste the precious time they’ve been offered by jumping in with their own views.

Speaking of time, though, I’ve gradually realised that most interviewees aren’t really watching the clock. Usually, I’m the one with an eye on the time, anxious about getting through my list of questions. Yet, often we’ll go over the agreed time; if the interviewee needs to go it’s because a child or a dog is demanding their attention. Fair enough – taking your dog for a walk is probably an even better form of therapy.