3 Skills Christians Can Learn from a Great Interviewer

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What keeps you from being a better friend to the people in your life?

As we grow in grace, we should become better friends. But it’s a hard climb; we should learn from whomever we can.

Krista Tippett hosts a public radio show/podcast called On Being. (I haven’t heard it.) She was interviewed on the Longform podcast back in October, and the episode gave me a lot of food for thought.

Practice Gracious Listening

Around the 33:35 mark, Tippett is asked about the phrase “gracious listening” which she uses in her 2016 book, Becoming Wise. What does she mean by this phrase?

I put words in front of the word “listening”—gracious, generous—because the word listening and the act of listening, there’s a lot of lack of self-awareness around that. I think that I grew up, and a lot of people in this culture grew up, experiencing listening as being quiet while the other person talks, basically. Right? So that eventually you can say what you have to say. Listening is basic social art, but it’s something we have to learn and practice. And we really haven’t practiced a robust listening—generous, gracious listening—which is not just about being quiet, but about actually, truly being curious, really mustering curiosity. Which can be as simple as being willing to be surprised.

She contrasts this curiosity with making assumptions about others.

We tend to go into encounters pretty much thinking we know who that other person is. We know who they voted for, we know what they do. So, curiosity I think is something that is a virtue that can be really complex and it’s counter-intuitive to how we walk through the world, especially how we walk through the public world.

I love that phrase be willing to be surprised. So often I assume I know another person by applying stereotypes. But this is far from loving. Being curious means, in part, acknowledging your incomplete understanding about another person. (Even your best friend or spouse!)

Because I am accepted by God and fully known by him, I don’t need to pretend to have everyone figured out. By his power I can put to death the insecurity and pride that puts up this front.

Create a Hospitable Atmosphere

Later in the podcast, Tippett is asked how she prepares for an interview. She talks about trying to get to know someone by immersing herself in what they’ve written and/or said in the past.

What I’m trying to do is not so much understand what people know, but how they think. And then, if I have just a sensitivity to that, that really creates a hospitable space for them to think out loud with me. And this transmits itself viscerally, within a very few moments of meeting somebody. We’ve all had this experience of walking into a room and […] you know you’re going to have to defend yourself or explain yourself. And that creates a certain amount of tension and it puts you in a certain mode of what you are going to talk about and what you’re not going to talk about. And I’m trying to create an atmosphere, an intellectually hospitable atmosphere, where people have this sense very quickly that I get them. And then, you just relax inside.

Tippett’s description makes me wonder what sort of atmosphere I create in my conversations. Are people encouraged to think out loud with me? Or am I making them feel defensive and interrogated? This idea of a hospitable atmosphere has huge implications when it comes to apologetics, evangelism, and discipleship.

Ask Good Questions

Tippett’s definition of a good question is “one that elicits honesty.” She was asked what she means by that definition.

I think one thing a lot of people do is ask questions that are interesting to them. Like, “I’ve always wanted to know.” […] Often when I start out preparing for an interview, I will have my questions that I think going into this I’m probably going to want to ask this person. But in the course of preparation, a lot of them will fall away. And what will come in their place is the question that’s going to be interesting to them. And I can formulate that question because I’m immersing in their thinking. So then the questions I’m writing are coming out of that rather than out of my head. And if you ask somebody a question that’s interesting to them, they immediately—you’ll hear it, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s an interesting question.” And then they stop realizing they’re being interviewed, and they’re not even giving an answer, they’re thinking in real time.

This definition of a good question is fairly specific to the context of an interview, but there’s still a lot to learn. My default setting is to ask questions I find interesting, and I never considered that this might be selfish. It is a challenge to know someone well enough to ask a question that interests them. What works in one conversation might not work in the next.

Perhaps a common theme that holds these skills together (for the Christian) is dependence. If we depend on the Holy Spirit, discarding the notion we must control the conversation, we’ll be more likely to love the other person. We won’t make assumptions, we won’t focus on ourselves, and we’ll serve.

As Tippett says (in the first quote), this takes practice. But it’s worth it! And it reflects our God as well—he knows us completely and welcomes us in relationship and conversation. By his strength, let’s do the same for each other.


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Photo Credit: Ben Kerckx (2014), public domain

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