Much of my workday is spent interviewing people about subjects important to them: projects, initiatives, passions, experiences. After the publication of my memoir last fall, I had a small number of opportunities to be an interview subject rather than an interviewer. The host of a nationally syndicated show on NPR interviewed me for a whole hour, a reporter for a community newspaper in our region came over for coffee to interview me, and one of my colleagues at the Boston Globe even did a short phone interview that she later wrote up into a brief blurb (reasonably enough, the Globe prefers not to give a great deal of coverage to its own writers’ projects).
At the time, I told some of these interviewers that I was tickled to be “on the other side of the counter,” because it was just fun to have people asking questions about me rather than vice versa. (I’ve sometimes imagined a New Yorker cartoon in which Terry Gross is approached at a cocktail party and snaps, “Listen, I’m really not interested in hearing about you! Let’s make it about me for once!”) But as more time goes by, I realize that it was not only fun but also professionally beneficial for me to be interviewed, because it reminded me to be more empathetic of the people I’m interviewing.
Specifically, when I have numerous quotes to gather in a little time, I tend to grow secretly impatient with people who have a lot to say. Though I have enough experience as a journalist to know it really doesn’t help to try to hurry people, I also tend to know before our conversation even begins what it is that I need from them, and it’s tempting to try to race through the discussion to get to the part I’m after.
But then I remember how as I was falling asleep the night before my NPR interview, I was still thinking about what I would say, how to tell my story, the right words for framing certain thoughts.
In short, it was a big deal to me to be interviewed, and I wanted time and space to tell my story clearly. And it helps me to remember that when I call other people for quotes, I myself may know that they are just one of a half-dozen people I need to talk to on the same topic, and all I really need is a sentence or two – but to them, it’s a big deal to be asked to share their thoughts, and they too probably thought long and hard about just what they want to say.
The bottom line is that no matter whether the end result is an article or some entirely different product, empathy almost never hurts, and being an interview subject, even just for a very short phase in my life, helped me to see that. It’s good for me to remember that I’m asking people about issues that are important to them, and they want to be heard.
So now I try to slow down. Even when an interview subject is explaining something to me that I already understand, I let them process it in their own words. Even when they’re straying far from the important part of my question, I let them meander. Every last element of their response may not matter much to me, but it does to them. And the more I can remember that feeling when I had it myself, the more I can ultimately do justice to their perspective. Which is, after all, why I bothered to called them.