How to Listen with Your Eyes.

An eye can threaten like a loaded and levelled gun, or it can insult like hissing or kicking; or, in its altered mood, by beams of kindness, it can make the heart dance for joy. … One of the most wonderful things in nature is a glance of the eye; it transcends speech; it is the bodily symbol of identity.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had the pleasure of moderating a documentary film presentation and panel discussion at the 16th Annual Association of Personal Historians conference.

The session featured the screening of  Ted Grant: The Art of Observation followed by a Q&A with the audience, the film’s subject Ted Grant, and writer, co-producer, and co-director Heather Mac Andrew.

Ted Grant is the  dean of Canadian photojournalists whose career spans over five decades. In the documentary I was struck by an observation Ted made, “We hear with our ears but we listen with our eyes.”

Ted’s comment got me thinking. As personal historians, the root of our work is the interview. When we’re interviewing then, how do we listen, as Ted says, with our eyes?

When we’re engaged in an interview, it’s not just the words we’re listening to but also the subtext. It’s the eyes that give us clues to what’s behind the words. Our subject may express happiness and contentment but the eyes are sad. We may hear kindness and openness  but the eyes are angry and narrowed.  If we’re doing our job well, we need to check out this dissonance with our interviewee. By listening with our eyes we unearth a richer more authentic story.

If our interviewees are speaking volumes with their eyes, what are we conveying to them through our eyes? I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of talking to someone who appears to be listening. They’re facing us,  their head is nodding appropriately, they’re making sounds of acknowledgment, and yet something tells us they aren’t there with us. What’s going on? A clue is in the eyes. They’re unfocused and distant. Now ask yourself this, “When  interviewing someone who isn’t particularly interesting, what are your eyes conveying?”  If I’m honest with myself, more than likely my eyes are saying, “Dan’s not here.”

There are other examples. If we’re feeling nervous about a particular interview or anxious about a family matter,  our eyes will reflect our internal state. Pretending that all is well will send mixed signals.  Our failure to get a good interview may in part be a result of the conflicting messages we’re conveying to our interview subjects.

Our ability to draw out the best from our clients depends so much on our ability to listen deeply. Thank you Ted Grant for reminding us that as  interviewers  we do indeed hear with our  ears but listen with our eyes.

***You might be interested  in a previous article I wrote in a similar vein  How to Listen With Your Third Ear.***

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