Many of my days are spent helping leaders develop empathic leadership skills to support their team’s mental wellness. While the work is very different from my past as a documentary filmmaker, I’m seeing intersections that are increasingly relevant to what today’s workforce needs from its leaders.
Whether it was competing in a camel race, filming illegally in Times Square or flying around the entire globe in a month, making documentaries with my team was never dull. While some reality TV shows are designed to manipulate interviewees and stir up drama, documentary interviews are different. You’re creating a connection that enables the interview subject to authentically communicate their perspective and experience.
The director’s voice and the questions they ask are usually edited out. It’s those questions — and the way they’re asked — that can determine the quality and depth of the response. It’s active listening in practice and here are some of the ways it’s done:
Location, Location, Location
When planning interviews, we had to consider the potential pitfalls of a location. Is it noisy? Are there people walking in and out of the space? Is it a comfortable place for the interviewee to speak openly? If someone is worried about being overhead or gets interrupted, they may not speak as honestly as they would if they were in a safer space. This is especially relevant if team members are working from home and have partners, children or roommates around who may be part of what’s causing them strife. Privacy is key and may require advance planning.
Meet Them Where They’re At
Sometimes my colleagues and I would interview people who had been through something terrible. We would ask questions about that horrible time and film it, which required compassion and sensitivity. Today, our work teams are extremely fragile. They too require empathy and kindness as they cope. Tough “stiff upper lip” style conversations won’t resonate with the majority of employees now (if they ever did). Be respectful, considerate and let them tell you what they’re experiencing and what they need.
Prepare but Remain Curious
If you have an intention for the conversation, it can be good to have some questions planned in advance; however, simply reading them one after another is more likely to create an interrogation rather than a healthy conversation. Listening clearly means you can absorb what is being said and ask follow-up questions on the fly. This helps create a flow state for the communication that elicits more honest responses and can build a rapport. Chances are you’ll learn something that a rote, prepared list never would have discovered.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
The toughest interviews are when someone is shy or nervous or just not much of a talker. “Yes” or “no” responses don’t work in most documentaries because there’s no way of knowing what the question was. In the business world, these short answers don’t give you much insight into what the team member is actually feeling or thinking. Using open-ended questions can help create the space for someone to say more in their own way. “Tell me about” is a great way to invite more in-depth responses. Sentences starting with “what” and “how” can also open up communication, while “why” and “who” can be trickier to navigate.
During an interview you give the subject your full attention. You can’t speak while they’re talking, but you can make eye contact, nod, smile when appropriate and maybe even take notes if they’re comfortable with it. Your facial expressions and body language clearly convey that you’re with them and they are being fully heard. Giving someone this level of engagement demonstrates that they are currently your top priority, and you’re fully focused on what they’re saying.
Silence Can Be a Good Thing
When filming, you need to leave a healthy pause after the interviewee stops speaking to ensure they are in fact done, and you don’t accidentally speak over them and ruin a take. This is very similar to virtual meetings where you’re dealing with some digital lag time. Sometimes people need a moment to think something through before they continue speaking. Jumping in on a pause may prevent you from hearing that next well-considered thought. You may also be inadvertently signaling that their time is up and accidentally close down communication. Wait a moment before speaking and see what happens. This can also help you collect your thoughts about what you want to say, rather than filling air.
Remember the Big Picture
It’s the director’s job to have the full story of the film in their head and collaborate to create the elements that fulfill their vision. Sometimes things go as planned and other times a single interview can change the trajectory of the story. As you listen to your team members, what are you hearing about the company, its vision and strategy? Are all of the moving parts working, or are some components sending up red flags? Start with the big picture, listen to what your team members have to say about it and then reconsider whether changes are needed to make the overall vision work. Active listening is a powerful way to improve workplace communication and allow teams to have a voice at a tough time. Leaders who listen will gain a greater understanding of their team members and their company. Competing in a camel race can teach you a lot too, but that’s a story for another time.