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Power listening tip: one simple thing you can do today to become a better listener

Have you ever wondered what makes a great interview? Not a job interview, but an interview for a talk show or podcast. How do the really good interviewers work their magic? Do they do the most research? Do they prepare the best questions? Do they have some secret tricks?

And, if we could learn some of their technique, would it help us to perform better at work? (Yes!)

I think the answer is simple: the best interviewers are the best listeners. Further, I’d suggest that one simple technique that they use gets the most results. This is how they listen well and to drive the conversation to the most interesting places. This is how they get the interviewee to become comfortable. They use it to make the conversation personal, to achieve a real meeting of the minds, and to get to the most useful insights. And it’s the thing we could use in our work to make stronger connections and more meaningful exchanges.

The Circuit

Let’s take a quick look at how the talk show circuit works. Someone has something to promote and they want to get the word out. To do that, they visit various shows to reach various audiences. The interviewers get to spend some time with an interesting person. They help to get the word out, sure, but they also want to talk about other things too. And they want (for themselves and the audience) to get to know the interviewee a little better. The best interviews are just like personal conversations.

But even in personal conversations, without an audience, we can struggle sometimes to get to the more meaningful stuff. How often have you run into someone you haven’t seen in a long time and the exchange is pretty superficial? That sort of exchange doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of your relationship as much as it does on the particular communication challenge at play. With just a short time to talk, how do you make the best use of that time? We see this on the most popular talk show format a lot.

Late night talk shows are still where the biggest mainstream audience is for popular interviews. These shows use a lot of scripted stories organized by the producers. This makes the short segments funny and entertaining, but rarely result in any sort of captivating revelations or compelling insights. It’s the same as when you bump into that friend and can only chat briefly, except the pre-arranged meeting by the television network is well-planned and professionally produced. The same is true for daytime talk shows that follow this format. They spread their time and attention across a variety of guests and topics, enough to keep it light and mildly interesting, but there are no deep dives.

Talk radio is different. The visual component is gone, relieving the host of the need to serve that aspect of the presentation, while also raising the bar on the content (since I can’t see anything, I’m listening more carefully). The real advantage they have, however, is time. The segments are longer and the interviews have more space in which to develop. Not all hosts take advantage of this, of course. Many have their guests literally and figuratively phone in the interview. But others use the opportunity to get into real conversations. Howard Stern built his career by using the time for extensive and deep interviews of his guests. This is how he got to the good stuff.

Podcasting takes this even further. There are no time limits or enforced commercial breaks. The audience being served is not mainstream. Rather, it’s made up of self-selected interested parties (in the show topic, host, interviewee, etc). Combine that format with a good interviewer and you have a success on your hands. Marc Maron has proven this, and he’s one of the great interviewers to listen to and learn from.

The Technique

Which brings us back to the question posed earlier – what is a technique that the good interviewers use that we can take back to our own work?

Well, if you listen to Marc Maron, you soon realize he’s a good listener. He’s created a physical environment (in his garage!) that’s comfortable and welcoming to his guests. And that sort of setup puts a focus on the conversation. Then they talk. Clearly he’s researched his guest carefully. But the conversation isn’t unnaturally architected or scripted. It flows.

As it flows, Marc gets to some of the best stuff by simply asking follow up questions. The one I like the best, the one I think we can use at work is, “like what?” Often, rather than just accepting what’s said, Marc asks for clarification. “Can you give me an example?” “What do you mean by that?”

Many times, this is where the good stuff is. We get deeper into the conversation and much more is revealed. Rather than wanting to move things along to the next topic or thread of conversation, Marc digs in a little bit. Or at least clarifies, rather than assuming he (and the audience) knows precisely what the interviewee is talking about. In this way, he and his guest arrive at a much stronger shared understanding of what they’re talking about.

We have the same opportunity in our conversations at work. Often, we are in a meeting or conversation and we think we understand each other, but we don’t. That understanding is usually more superficial than we think it is. This is why, for bigger items that require commitment of resources, we try to clarify more up front. We create project charters and document goals and objectives and user acceptance criteria. That helps, but this need to achieve a real meeting of the minds is a persistent issue, and it permeates more conversations than we might think.

Which is why the follow on question technique is so powerful. If you’re not afraid to ask for clarification, if you’re not afraid to slow the conversation down, if you’re not afraid to not know something, you’ll learn so much more. You’ll be a better listener because you will understand more. And the person you’re speaking with will have a chance to slow down too. After all, they believe they are intimately familiar with what they’re trying to convey. Faced with your follow on questions, they’ll have to dig deeper to answer the questions themselves so they can share them with you — like the old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it. What’s more, they’ll know you are listening carefully and they will appreciate that. Everyone wants to be heard.

The next time you’re in an important conversation, don’t let the opportunity to listen better and learn more slip by. When something is being explained to you, ask the follow up question. Get clarification. Ask for examples. Dig a little deeper. That way, you’ll get to the interesting stuff. And it will pay huge dividends as the conversation (and the work) continues.