As journalists, we have all been guilty of switching off in interviews either because we are too preoccupied with our follow-up question or determined to get the golden soundbite.
It is also possible that we simply are not listening because of our agenda; we do not agree with the words coming out of interviewee’s mouth.
Either way, this behaviour likely makes the interviewee feel ignored. And if your interviewee feels ignored, the chances of them truly opening up or engaging in conversation are quite slim.
That is where a technique called 'deep listening' comes in useful. In essence, it "is an approach to difficult conversations that ensures both parties feel fully heard."
Research on deep listening has also shown that when interviewees feel heard, they also feel safer and less defensive.
How does it work?
BBC News put this technique into action at its Crossing Divides Live event earlier this month (5 March 2020), as part of the Crossing Divides season, which has been running across the BBC over the last 12 months.
With the help of BBC 5 Live, they had recruited over 200 willing participants to be trained in deep listening, with many of the conversations highlighted in live broadcasts during the day..
Deep listening techniques proved crucial to making participants feel comfortable enough to talk to people with very opposing points of view on topics like Brexit, climate change, vegetarianism and the NHS.
The #CrossingDividesLive audience of 50 have been paired up with someone who disagrees with them, for their 20 minute conversation.— BBC Radio 5 Live (@bbc5live) March 5, 2020
The topics will include Brexit, climate change, vegetarianism and the NHS.
Follow the day live here 🤝: https://t.co/cOLpBA3k1k pic.twitter.com/aSZD5MjJmL
The training was led by Emily Kasriel, editor of BBC Crossing Divides who has been talking to a host of psychologists, facilitators and mediators to understand the best way of bringing two conflicting sides to a meaningful conversation. She has also undertaken training in conflict mediation and is a BBC executive coach.
"I began by doing some meditation with the group, inviting them to focus on being present," she explained.
"Once they did that, I asked them to imagine someone they know who is a really good listener; what does it feel like to be heard by them, and what are the attributes of that good listener.
"We then shared anecdotes about what a good listener is. People came up with descriptions like 'you felt relaxed in their company', 'you feel you are really being heard', 'you feel they aren’t judging you', and 'they are curious to deeply understand you'."
The participants then learned a looping skill which involves deeply listening to the core part of the other person’s opinion, summarising it and checking that this summary is correct. The person then has an opportunity to correct the other person, go deeper or express another view where the cycle repeats.
It goes deeper than words though, they needed to pay close attention to body language, and more importantly, emotions.
"When people feel truly heard, research indicates that their opinions become less extreme, and they are more able to consider other possibilities and different perspectives," said Kasriel.
"We all go on automatic, we all want to challenge, we all want to prove to the other person that we’re right, but the evidence shows that only when the other person feels deeply listened to and truly heard, may they be open to hearing another perspective."
Deep listening does not have to be restricted to set projects like Crossing Divides, though. Many BBC correspondents have shown an interest in employing these techniques to enhance their in-depth interviews.
"Doing deep listening allows you to momentarily suspend your agenda and find out what’s going on."
Deep listening may sound easy, but it deceptively hard. Advice on executing deep listening successfully ranges from putting your smartphone down when talking, avoid imposing your own solutions and not interrupting the other person when they are speaking.
But it is sometimes a journalist’s responsibility to interject when an interviewee, particularly those holding public duty roles, attempts to dodge questions or spread falsehoods. So applications of deep listening should be carefully considered.
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