Friday, 8 February 2013

The Lost Art of Listening


You don’t often meet someone who really listens.  You don’t often meet people who ask the right questions.  It just doesn’t happen.  Unless you happen across one of life’s natural psychotherapists (generally not the kind who’s trained or the kind you pay) - or a real journalist. 

Back in the old days, journalism was not just the science of reporting facts – clear and clean –  but also the art of listening. 
It was something I was lucky enough to be taught early on in my career, when I started interviewing what would now be called ‘celebrities’ but back then were just musicians or artists or fashion designers or actors.  Or, later on, the ‘ordinary’ people to whom odd or extraordinary things had happened.  
An editor I knew said:  ‘Have a list of questions, by all means. But put it to one side when you meet the person. Half the time you won’t need it.’ 

She insisted that, once the conversation had started, one should let it flow, let it go where it wanted to.  ‘And listen, listen, listen,’ she said. ‘Let your intuition be on full alert. Hear what is unsaid, what wants to be said, and then gently facilitate that.’  She said there was always a moment – in any real interaction, not just interviews of course – where the truth, the bottom line, the kernel, the confession, the whatever you will, would rise up and ask to be heard.  And, as the Listener, you could grasp that and, with the most delicate of touch, you could tease it and pull it out.  Or, on the other hand, you could miss it, you could let it pass.  And then, when you came to play back your interview, you would hear it – that missed moment, that lost lacuna. And you would kick yourself.

Very few people – whether journalists or not – truly Listen. The Listener is a rare soul.  People generally are too eager to talk, to get across their own point of view, their agenda, to hear their own voice.  Someone else’s words are nothing more than a nudge, a jumping off point. 
-       Ooh yes, that happened to me…
-       Ooh, that reminds me of when I…
-       Ah, but I always think…
Andrew distance listening. :)

My friends Fi and Andrew, however, are old-school journalists, schooled in the art of teasing out the truth.  They slide through defences, they find the gaps.  And they listen, they really Listen.  It’s beguiling.  It’s dangerous.  There is something very tempting about being given true attention. Beware when you find a Listener - if you're not wary, they'll steal your very soul.  :-)

The years slither away when I see them; they always do.  Sometimes I’m shocked to see the grey in Fi’s hair, the lines on Andrew’s brow and I do a double-take when their younger son walks in from his shift at the local radio station and gives me a hug.  I can still see him so clearly, passed round the table, a baby parcel, when he was born.  Time is nothing here – we have sat at their kitchen table countless times – once it was small and cramped and now it sits in a smart extension but the laughter is exactly the same.

They’re generous hosts, the best type – food cooked with love and thought; wine free-flowing, conversation bright and smart and thoughtful and funny; moods and topics shifting almost by the second. It never goes stale.  I could stay there for hours, lost in their warmth.  And their Listening.

6 comments:

Zoe said...

Glad you have found someone who does listen - we all need it. Sorry I am not a better listener but I learned something from your post - attempts at empathy are not what people need. They are misconstrued. Wish I had been a better friend - sorry to have failed you x

Exmoorjane said...

@Zoe. No. Truth to tell, I barely talked. It was just...interesting...observing the process. You are a very fine Listener, my dear friend. xx

Ashen said...

Listening is such a complex business. There are many voices in us, a listener can easily collude and blank out a voice the person does not want to listen to in themselves. And there are times when it's appropriate to collude.

Fennie said...

Jane, you are so absolutely right. I used to run attitude surveys - trying to find out what peoples grumbles and grievances were at work and it the one thing you couldn't do was to go in with a questionnaire.

Sally said...

Brilliant just reading made me remember a friend that's a good listener.

skybluepinkish said...

I am a poor listener. Last year I made a positive effort to speak less if at all and to actively listen. It is not easy but it becomes more so, like anything practice is the key. But what is most interesting is how much more relaxed I have become. I no longer feel the urge to do so much and I appreciate what I have done and have so much more. There is a lot to be said for listening.