Have you ever had a moment when you’ve stopped and asked yourself, Why am I talking? Become conscious that you have gone on for too long, the other person has tuned out or you just need to give them some time and space?
If you’ve ever conducted interviews or focus groups no doubt, at some point, you have had the uncomfortable experience of listening to yourself on tape. Was your initial response, ‘do I really sound like that?’, mine was. Then, maybe like me, you moved on to the realisation that you are not only going to have to listen to it in detail but share it also with your supervisor. Maybe you’ve done a fabulous interview and are keen to share it but on the other hand perhaps it wasn’t as finely tuned as you would have liked.
Listening to recordings of our discussions is routine for qualitative researchers but perhaps less so in our clinical encounters. It supports us in our analysis of data, helps us become grounded and immersed in the context of our data and ensures that we take notice of the subtleties of the encounter.
We focus on what is being said and how it is being said, on the nuances and the spaces left by what is not being said. But how much attention do we pay to our own talk, the questions asked, comments made and the number of interruptions?
A while ago I wrote about the power of listening. To listen deeply we first need to stop talking. To pause, to attend, to make space. Whether we are working in clinical practice or research listening is fundamental to our practice and, like any tool, needs to be developed and nurtured. Listening back to a recording of ourselves in action can be a salutary lesson as well as a brilliant opportunity to hone our skilsl.
Whilst I was training as a personal coach we were required to, with the client’s permission, record a series of coaching sessions. We then had to listen to the recording, select an appropriate section and share it with our supervisor to inform our next supervision session. A whole hour of reflecting on a segment of coaching. Dissecting what was and wasn’t said, thinking about how it could have been said differently, and, of course, whether it needed to have been said at all.
Having worked in clinical practice and research for over 30 years I think of myself as a ‘good listener’ but oh boy was this a wake up call. It would be stretching a point to say I didn’t stop talking but there was definitely room for improvement.
I know what happens – I ask a question and my mind races. Someone says something and in the moment it evokes a thought which, before I can catch myself, emanates from my mouth. When I get excited and join in with the conversation, I can get swept away in the moment. There are, of course, times when this is fine but there are times also when I definitely need to refine my ‘buttoning up’.
Providing time and space for a question to land, for someone to sit with a question, think through their response are important listening skills to learn. If you want to learn from someone and listen in-depth you need to first stop talking. If you want to deepen a conversation you need to stop talking as a sign that you are interested in hearing more.
Therefore in any encounter like a 1:1 interview the balance of talking should be weighted heavily on the side of the person you are interviewing. If you are preparing an interview schedule have a look at the number of questions you have prepared. Then ask yourself, if the interview lasts for around an hour how much time have I left between questions for answers. Ditto the guide for a focus group discussion. Do you need to reduce the number of questions to ensure that rather than a quick fire question experience you have left space to stop asking questions and listen.
Next time you record an interview or group discussion and listen back to it I would encourage you to spend some time thinking about the balance between speaking and listening. You can tell from any transcript you read of interviews where the balance lies – take a look at how much talk goes on before you ask the next question. Is it a line or two or whole paragraphs? This will give you an indication of the depth of answers your are capturing.
Help is at hand
So here is something I was given by one of my supervisors and I am sharing it with you………. WAIT.
Such a simple and brilliant question isn’t it. A call to pause and reflect.
If you are a person who wants to reduce your amount of talk in certain situations try using it. Write it in bold letters at the top of your note book before you go into your interview, group discussion or meeting.
It will help you to reflect on the relevance and importance of what you are saying.
I know some people have problems with ‘why’ questions but this is one that helped me deepen my listening and it may just help you do the same.
Photo by Andrew Robles via Unsplash