• Alex

“Shut Up and Listen”

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever had to edit my work or had the misfortune to be interviewed by me in the early stages of my career, but I am not a “trained” journalist.

I stumbled into the career after completing a MA in ancient history and realising that I was never going to get anywhere in academia without a passable knowledge of Latin (I got a mark of 51 for Latin, a whole 1 point above what was needed).

I had to pick things up along the way by hook or by crook. In fact, my first ever editor sent me an email in which he essentially told me to “get better or get fired”. Thankfully, I did.

Yet although I would now rate myself a passable hack, there was one skill that it took me perhaps far too long to acquire.

Journalists in the olden days were the ones driving the conversation. It was their job to decide what was newsworthy and tell their readers. Now the dynamic has shifted dramatically, and the job has become more reactive than ever.

When I started, I was eager to prove myself. I would research every topic thoroughly, and come into calls ready to spout statistics, facts, and anything I could get my hands on.

What this created was a stream of consciousness. My questions were sometimes overly combative. They would run on, ramble, sputter out, have dead ends, junctions, and dangling participles all over the place.

That was until a journalist and editor I respected highly gave me a simple instruction a few years into my career.

“Shut up and listen.”

Take a beat. Ask your question in one sentence, then sit in silence. Let the story tell itself – if it’s worth writing about it will come naturally. Let your subject speak freely, and if they pause don’t rush to fill the silence. Enjoy that silence. Revel in it!

(I once timed the silences in an interview with a CEO of a payments company who took long pauses between answers. Neither of us backed down at the end of one answer, leading to a whopping 20 seconds of dead air. The PR on the call thought we’d both dropped out.)

This interview technique is fantastic for teasing out extra details from speakers, get them swimming out past the shallow water of their prepared remarks and into the deep water of – gasp – their opinion.

But the advice took on a whole new shape with me.

I have always been ambitious, precocious, and eager to please, pretty much since childhood. That in many cases manifested itself into a sense of having something to prove, a need to have the last word.

In my teenage and early adulthood I felt that I needed to prove that I was smart enough, or good enough, sometimes at the expense of others. If I was wrong, I would continue to try and argue my side, fighting a losing battle and unwilling to concede a point. I would condescend, I would patronise, I would mansplain.

In essence, I would let my own assumptions and opinions, no matter the ground they stood on, drive the conversation. I would shape the story to my own liking, rather than let it come naturally, or grow organically, through the collaborative input of the majority.

But since being told to Shut Up and Listen, I have taken that message to heart. These days I try my very best not to interject on other people’s conversations just because I know something about the topic.

Granted, sometimes I don’t manage it. But in the event I am brought into the discussion my goal is then to shut my face and let people talk.

Adopting Shut Up and Listen has led to a rapid broadening of my horizons. Although I was aware of issues in the world with inequality and oppression, I never gave them the credence they deserved.

I realised that my opinions and experiences, while valid, should never be used to invalidate somebody else’s, and doubly so when that person is speaking of things of which I have no real right to speak upon.

Is someone talking about gender imbalance in the company you otherwise support? Shut Up and Listen. Does someone feel that BAME voices are not being heard in media which you otherwise enjoy? Shut Up and Listen. Is someone afraid that the role of class in systemic inequality is being downplayed? Shut Up and Listen.

You get the idea.

The technique has its merits in teasing out the opinions of a CIO on whether the regulatory changes incoming will disproportionately affect his company and colleagues, and in ensuring that the people with whom you are having a conversation are able to express their views.

I think a few more people, across industries could do with practicing Shut Up and Listen.


Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

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