Every Conversation is an Interview

Young Cultural Leaders Forum at Salzburg Global Seminar. Photo courtesy of Salzburg Global Seminar.

Last week we participated in an inaugural forum on young cultural leaders at the Salzburg Global Seminar created in partnership with National Arts Strategies. The seminar brought together over 50 people from all over the world to discuss and learn from one another across a broad range of issues in arts and culture. The group of people included a wide range of professionals working in both public, non-profit and private positions within organizations, festivals, institutions, companies, foundations and governments. The international diversity of the session reminded me of the sort of mix of cultures I was familiar with growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC, as well as the time I spent finishing my undergraduate studies at Bard College in upstate New York. On the first full day of the seminar I had what I felt to be a breakthrough insight that informed the rest of my experience in Salzburg. During a workshop about effective communication and active listening I wrote this observation in my notes:

Treat conversations like video interviews.
Witness the other and give them permission and space.

Learning to listen at the Young Cultural Leaders forum in Salzburg last week. Photo courtesy of Salzburg Global Seminar.

Over the last two years I have interviewed over a hundred people. When I am conducting an interview I make an extra effort to tune into what the person is saying. I find that the more I focus and follow what they say, the better my responses are and the more organic the conversation flow becomes. This may seem obvious but its not easy – it takes practice and extreme concentration. Whenever I’ve rushed or stuck too closely to a prescribed list of questions the process invariably results in more static footage. The answers tend towards short or rehearsed. These sorts of more question-oriented interviews always feel pregnant with untapped potential. In thinking deeply about the power of active listening I discovered the similarities to the interviewing process to be outstanding.

Why should granting another person permission to explore and elaborate be reserved for when the camera is rolling? Why isn’t this the default approach to all the conversations we have? How does the presence of a recording device change the way we focus our attention on another person?

I have returned from Salzburg with these questions resonating strongly. As we dive back into our work editing Early Stage we carry a renewed sense of the importance of listening in all the work that we do as storytellers.