The listening journalist

On interviewing, with a little help from Hemingway

When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling.

Ernest Hemingway, By-Line 

The celebrated novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway was curiously reluctant to discuss his literary craft. He feared analysis of the inner workings might somehow cast a spell on his prose.

Yet, as his publisher Charles Scribner Jr concluded, Hemingway had done precisely the opposite by the time of his death. He had said a great deal about writing. And, as Scribner observed in Ernest Hemingway on Writing, he “wrote as well and as incisively about the subject as any writer who ever lived”.

Hemingway had something to say about listening too — as the extracted nugget above reveals. Indeed, he informed Scott Fitzgerald that failure to listen would dry up a writer. Everything came from listening.

Hemingway’s astute insights came to mind recently when a student posed a question.

The student had simply asked: How do I listen properly when I am interviewing?

Clearly, interviewing is not simply concerned with asking the ‘right’ questions. Equally, it’s not simply about the answers. Perhaps the student was hinting at something else going on within human conversation; something deep within that mysterious transactional space filled by the ‘inter’ part of the interview. I think she was wrestling with how to respond to the words entering her ears. Perhaps the received words had posed unexpected questions for her. Perhaps, as Hemingway suggests, she was searching for what it was that gave her a particular feeling.

This platform already contains excellent advice on the sort of self-reflection that can elevate sensory perception. However, Hemingway’s reflections on feelings and listening reminded me of a philosophical tradition that may offer further food for thought. ‘Hermeneutics’ is concerned with how we interpret the world and two tenets appear particularly relevant.

Firstly, we do not ‘arrive’ at a conversation from nowhere. We come from somewhere — somewhere that has profoundly shaped us and our feelings. We arrive at interviews laden with personal baggage, pre-understandings and prejudices. Some are known to us. Others lurk somewhere within, unfelt and unseen but nonetheless conditioning our worldviews and utterances. These layered, sedimented depths constitute the unique varnish of our personal interpretations of others. Secondly, hermeneutics affords priority to language, conversational openness and Hemingway’s essential prerequisite: attentive listening. However, only the right kind of listening will suffice. So, what is this listening?

What’s not required is the sort of listening that might be seen to accord with that most entrenched and contentious of journalism’s normative standards — objectivity. The journalist can refrain from simply obtaining and reporting unadorned facts while trying to remain at distance from the interviewee; there’s no need to be coldly detached and dispassionately unaffected by what unfolds. In fact, the journalist is not required to extinguish their views, feelings or prejudices at all. Not because the task may prove practically impossible but because the interviewer can use feelings, enhanced self-knowledge and emotional sensitivity to get closer to understanding what others say. These interviewers wish to assess the feelings their interviewees provoke within them – whether reaffirming and confirmatory or alien and discomforting. In this context, the question of whether it is possible to prise verifiable facts from subjective values becomes somewhat redundant and irrelevant. A better question to ask is whether objective journalism is actually desirable.

To truly listen, the philosopher-interviewer awaits answers that surprise, shock or unsettle. They await the feelings alluded to by Hemingway. It’s precisely these fragments of spoken strangeness that alert the interviewer to his or her own prejudices. Once identified, these pre-understandings are confronted, negotiated and employed in a sincere bid to comprehend alternative views and experiences. In essence, this self-exfoliation offers a philosophical dimension to interview techniques and models designed to help interviewees feel heard.

Hermeneutics, then, offers an approach to sensory filtering that attempts to fleetingly capture, hold and scrutinise moments of divergence and difference rather than allow prejudices to selectively and defensively blank them. Such interviewers strive to hold their prejudices to account; they aspire to get in touch with their feelings, as Hemingway sagely suggested. They want to see what is there in interviews, not what they assumed or expected to be present. In short, they endeavour to retrieve their latent but potent conditionings in order to make better interpretations of our interpreted world.

The goal is deeper understanding through genuine dialogue. Deeper understanding results in deeper interpretations that are closer to people’s actual experiences. The same applies to observation. Senses are heightened when journalists remain open to surroundings that are challenging or unexpected. Resulting stories can have richer hues of colour and greater depths of description. Once again, they more closely resemble the lived experiences of the subjects.

In this way journalism (and language) resists the slide into sameness and standardisation or skewed, pre-determined storytelling. The ever-present danger of featureless, hackneyed, worn-out discourse instead succumbs to language that vividly evokes with resonance, meaning and power.

Interviews should thus be approached with a commitment to reciprocity rather than formulaic prescription. The interviewee is asked questions on the understanding that the answers will be received with openness and reflection. The go-to question of ‘how do you feel?’ becomes equally applicable to both interviewee and interviewer.

The interview grants journalists the privilege of learning more about others. In so doing, the best listening journalists learn more about themselves – just as Hemingway encouraged.

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