13. The fourth phase: Reading

No, not reading a book or manuscript, but ”reading” your guest and adjusting to your guest. We’ve talked about your body language as a host. Now it is time to be aware of the body language and non-verbal aspects of your guest.

Some people are very hard to read. I am not one of them. All this Zooming stuff is fine, but there is one significant disadvantage for me – I am an open book. By that, I mean, I show my feelings. If I am bored, you can tell. If I am uncomfortable, it is easy to see. If I am stressed out or simply want to be in another place, it is not hard to figure that out. I have trouble keeping eye focus. I am, simply put, impatient, and that can be interpreted as being unpolite. Which, I admit, I can be in my role as a participant.

As a host with a guest on a show, I can focus. Still, as a participant in a conference, board meeting, student, or one person in a small group Zoom conference, I can make other people nervous by my fidgety behavior. 

It is essential for you to be able to read the ”state” of your guest or guests. We’ve discussed the importance of them feeling comfortable. There should be some kind of nervousness or uncertainty because that’s the nature of being interviewed, but not too much to block out their ability to reflect and answer your questions. 

The point is to understand boundaries. When are you making them too uncomfortable or nervous? When are you putting too much pressure on them? You can’t measure this, only sense it. I guess it’s like Goldilocks and the three bears – the porridge is too hot, too cold, or, yum, just right. You want to dig and prod but need to find out what’s ”just right.” 

Too hot is putting a person into a corner where they can’t escape – some pressure is necessary, but there are seldom advantages of trying to pry them open at any cost. Maybe that’s what I especially dislike about interviews that focus totally on past mistakes and emotions. If you don’t help your guest move forward, you are only making them (and your audience) feel bad. Don’t just revisit train wrecks and the same emotional roller coasters. 

Too cold is just asking the same old questions. Aren’t you tired of that famous sports question, ”How does it feel?” Well, how do you think it feels to win or lose? That’s not interesting. What is interesting is their thought process at a certain important moment during the game. So do your best to think of” discovery” questions and do your best to avoid regurgitation of the ”same old.” 

Just right is that balance of reflection, and prodding, which leads to insight. ”Hmmm, I haven’t thought about that.” Sometimes your guest will even say, ”That’s a good question,” which may be true and gives the guest time to answer the question by saying that – and that’s perfectly fine.

The list of your body language applies to your observations of your guest’s body language:

–       How your guests look at you and use their eyes to retain your attention

–       How the guest tilts his or her head – the ”telephone” position says I am willing to listen and communicate

–       How the guest uses their voice – rising voice inflection more often conveys interest or enthusiasm.

–       How the guest uses mini-pauses – waiting for just an extra half-second for a reply before responding indicates reflection

–       How the guest uses timing – and seems to be willing to ”dance” with you, laugh with you, think with you, or to look at new sides of a question with you

–       How your guest uses touch – which may indicate comfort, willingness, or unwillingness to get more personal

–       How your guest leans towards you or away may indicate a willingness or unwillingness to proceed on the same line of questioning or theme

–       How the guest uses their hands – palms up says ”yes,” palms down more often communicate ”no.”

–       The guest uses gestures that communicate energy, emphasis, gathering in, or rounding off. Still, hands with a tiny pause may give a clue of importance to the guest

–       The tempo of movement may indicate stress or comfort

–       How your guest smiles – a smile is a direct line to acceptance and usually indicates comfort – but not all the time. Sometimes a laugh is a nervous reaction to being uncomfortable.

Do you really have to seek out and react to all these details? Yes, but most of it you do automatically without thinking. It’s the nature of our communication to adjust to the situation and people we are with. Still, the secret to the sauce of good communication is in the details. The more information you can pick up on a conscious level, the better you will become at reading the situation at hand and adjusting.

That helps you to back off if you’ve gone too far. It helps you to change the subject or help get back on track. It allows you to adapt in a way that you can further trust. By the way, you can interrupt the ”over-talkers.” I have to deal with that a lot as I usually do short interviews. I tell my guest ahead of time that I will be interrupting, refocusing, or moving on to get to a certain point. Yet, that balance between talking and listening is not always clear-cut. My goal is somewhere on the order of 70/30 – guest talks 70%, I talk 30%. Record your interviews and see when you watch or listen, measure what balance is and judge if you need to talk more or less

One of the most important aspects of your conversation is knowing when to dig and when not to dig, which I have mentioned several times before. As stated in my Talkshow conversations, I want to push and pull to help my guest towards insights and next steps. When doing this in front of an audience, I have, several times, experienced that I pushed too far. If that happens, I absolutely need to follow up afterward, ask how they are doing, and talk about what happened. In other words, this is tricky. 

Some Talkshow hosts purposely push too hard to get a reaction. I remember two instances of walking out of conferences about communication when the group leader was not satisfied until the object of the interview cried or had some kind of breakthrough. You are dealing with people’s integrity and feelings, and your purpose is not to push for emotional catharsis but insight. Or, as the behavior scientists would say, stay mainly on a cognitive level, not on a deep affective level. Keep this in mind on your Talkshow. This is not a therapy session; it’s a thinking session. Nothing wrong with strong emotions or therapy, just not on this type of forum.

This is simply a plea for empathy and remembering your purpose. You are there to strengthen, not weaken, to probe but not overwhelm.

To be better at observing the reactions, do some practice. In your daily life, observe the conversations of others, or watch Talkshows on TV with a focus on things like:

–       Eyes

–       Head tilting

–       Hands

–       Gestures

–       Voice tempo

–       Voice inflection

–       Revere (leading in or out)

–       Touch

–       Timing

–       Posture

–       Tiny pauses

–       Mouth movements

–       Movement in general, like how often people adjust their bodies in the chair

Don’t interpret – crossed arms means this, change of posture means this, this gesture means this. Just observe. While some observers of body language do use interpretation, I try to see it just as information – sometimes useful, sometimes not, and to trust myself to make adjustments. Practice observing this on, for example, Talkshows that you watch (or even listen to). You will automatically be able to consciously and unconsciously make adjustments and be better at what you do.

Watch the interview example with Karen.

Karen is an artist and teacher. Karen is very good at explaining what she does and how she does it. Mostly I listen and summarize her strengths and strategies – and give encouragement. She has already empowered herself. My role is simply to affirm her competency and path forward. Do that with your guests and in your conversations!

Here’s one more video – with Martha Warren, opera singer, theater director, and old friend from Camp Chateaugay in the Adirondack mountains.