The Gift of Listening

When was the last time you truly listened to someone?

I’m not talking about the listening that you do as you jot down your shopping list, or the listening that you do while you prepare what you are going to say in response. Rather I’m speaking about the experience of listening to someone without any distractions or any impatience. Listening with the express purpose of bearing witness to their story.

Can you remember how you felt the last time you really listened? Can you remember how you felt the last time someone really listened to you?

There is something about being heard that fulfills a heart-seated human need for connection. And it seems to go both ways: the experience of telling someone vivid stories about our life changes us, and it changes the perspective of the person listening.

When I set off to do all my interviews for Out With It, I did a huge amount of research into the oral history tradition. In particular, I became borderline obsessed with the work of Studs Terkel, and with the man himself. In all his books, and his interviews, I got the sense that he loved people, that he listened to them with genuine interest and fascination. Somehow his very presence allowed people to open a floodgate within themselves, and it allowed him to write books that became portraits of the human condition.

Studs Terkel listening
Studs Terkel witnessed stories that too often remained unspoken, or overlooked. He spoke to people who I imagine saw their lives as too mundane or unmemorable to be of interest to the outside world, and he unearthed a vivid, captivating wealth of stories within each of them.

I did my best to emulate Studs in every interview I ever conducted. I thought that I was prepared for the experience of listening deeply, but there was one piece that all my research never touched on. I never imagined how cathartic the experience would be for me, how listening to the rich details of someone’s life could change my own life so profoundly.

And so Out With It became an amalgamation of all of us. It became a testament to their stories, and a telling of my own transformation.

I am proud of the book I have created but there is something final in the completion of the book that makes me nostalgic for that year of interviews. For all the hours spent listening, and all the changes I watched in others (and felt in myself) as they told me their stories.

We all lead extraordinary ordinary human lives, we all have stories that are waiting to be told.

Seeing as we are in the season of gift-giving, can you think of someone in your life who you can give the gift of listening to?

Escaping the Silence: Stories from Out With It

It was 6 months into my year-long trip when I knew that I had been wrong, about a lot of things.

I was bumping along a dark New Mexican ridge with little idea where I was going, trying to remember my host’s quickly delivered instructions. The night had engulfed our Subaru station wagon and, with no reception on my phone, the blinking ‘check engine’ light looked more menacing than it had before.

I was on my way back to the ranch we were staying in for the night, leaving my 70th interview. I was reluctantly driving away from a man who had warily invited me into his home to ask him questions about his life, about what it meant to him to be a stutterer. Our interview had started awkwardly, both of us sitting politely on either side of his sofa with my recorder lying conspicuously between us.

He was different from any of the other 69 interviews stored on my recorder. He was the first man I had met who had never seen another stutterer before, the first person who had barely spoken about his stutter to anyone. He and I edged around the loaded word for a while. He mentioned ‘that thing I do when I talk’ and I nodded. He smiled when he ‘did it again’, I asked him to carry on.

As the hours slipped by and the sun sank into the earth, he told me how he had questioned his faith, spending many years thinking he must be possessed by the devil. He remembered reading that people had cut the ligament underneath their tongue to ‘cure’ their stutter and he held the scissors there more times than he was proud to admit. In his thick Mexican accent, he told me how he had become a teacher despite all the people who had told him that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t. He told me how honored and scared he was that his church had asked him to travel with them as an interpreter when they went to work with prison inmates in Colombia.

Gradually he started to lean towards me, he began to sound proud of all he had achieved, and he asked if his wife could join us. He started to laugh and smile and, as I sat back on the sofa, he told her things that he had never dared mention before. His daughter bounded in and he explained who I was, explained that he was talking to me about his stutter. It was the first time he had mentioned the word to her, the first time he had ‘come out’ as a stutterer. She told him that was cool and started showing me her toys, unfazed by the relief that was painted across his face.

When he walked me out to my car, his rough, weather-beaten features were backlit by the light streaming out of their kitchen door and I could barely see his face. But I heard the crack in his voice as he reached out his hand to hold mine and say thank you. I said it back and hoped he could see how grateful I was.

As I flicked on my headlights and started to drive away, I realized that I was thanking him, thanking all of the people who had allowed themselves to be interviewed, for something much more personal than I had realized. I was thanking them for finding the courage to tell me their stories, but also for holding up a mirror and showing me far more of myself than I had ever expected.

Six months ago I had left my home in England to explore stuttering. I had wanted to find out who it happened to, the ways they handled their speech and why we all stuttered. I thought that once I knew the ‘why’, I was one step closer to a fix. Although I left England keen to immerse myself in stuttering, I was looking for answers. I was looking to make my stuttering neat and tidy. I wanted to sanitize it and put it in a box so I could push it away and move on with the rest of my life.

Sitting in my car I knew that I had been wrong. As I planned the next day of driving in my head, I was excited by the thought of each interview yet to come and I was humbled by the generosity of each interview behind me. I saw that stuttering had become a password and an equalizer. It had invited me into the homes of everyone from farmers to celebrities, and it had led an intensity and an honesty to each of my conversations. It had brought me more adventure, and had made me more fearless than I had ever imagined.

I heard stories of courage, determination, heartache and painfully funny stories of miscommunication, and I realized that I was not interested in distancing myself from these people, or this condition, any more. I didn’t want my life to be polished and sanitized. I didn’t want to hide my speech. I realized that I was proud of the imperfections I had, proud of the tribe I had been born into.

I wrote this piece for the International Stuttering Awareness Day conference. Check out their website for a host of brilliant articles and stories.

Out With It and the Good Life Project

Filming the good life projectHave you ever had that dream where you walk down the road naked? Do you remember the moment you realize that everyone is staring at you in your birthday suit?

Now, imagine that it isn’t a dream. Imagine that, for a moment, the world gets to see you and all your bare humanity. How do you feel?

I feel petrified, or at least that’s how I felt as I stared at my laptop screen 5 days ago, in the wee hours of the morning. Jonathan had sent over advance access to the Good Life Project interview that would be aired in the morning, and I was watching the interview with headphones stuffed into my ears as Jeremy peacefully snored away in the other room.

In the morning, the video would be sent out to Jonathan’s tribe of avid fans and posted for the world to see on YouTube.

I had just gone very, very public with my stutter.

I had no idea how everyone would react. Would they hate it? Would my inbox be filled with vitriol? Would I be laughed at or criticized?

All the negative thoughts were chased by more hopeful ones. Would it comfort some people? Would it start to change the conversation about what is normal, about what it means to stutter? Would it inspire others to be fearless, to embrace whatever vulnerability they were dealing with?

I slept fitfully and woke up feeling hung-over, the image of my own face blocking, repeating and smiling etched into my mind’s eye.

By the time the interview was posted, I had readied myself for every bad reaction I could imagine.

And yet, in the past few days, my fears haven’t been realized. Not even close. Instead, I have been shocked by the messages I received full of nothing but support and gratitude. I have opened incredible emails and messages from strangers, from businessmen and mothers, from friends and people I barely know. I am still in awe of their kindness.

As one of them said, “I can’t imagine how hard it is to have something so personal so public. But I bet it is liberating!”

Liberating is a good word for it. Vulnerable and strong and never cowed. It was how I wanted people to see the book, the pieces that I had been struggling to express in the title.

Just before the video was posted, I heard from my editor. The publisher had given the thumbs up to our title: Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

What do you think?

The Good Life Project

Have you heard of Jonathan Fields?

Jonathan Fields & the good life projectIf not, let me give you the two second introduction – a former big firm lawyer, he is now a phenomenally successful author, entrepreneur and speaker. He’s one of the cool, popular kids in the startup world. The kind of guy you want to learn from. I had recently emailed him about getting together for coffee but our schedules had been too busy and the meet up had been put on hold indefinitely.

My weekend had slid past in a lazy summer haze of boating and beaching and seafood gluttony, when I had an email from Jonathan on Monday evening.

new york sailing

new york summer beaches

Would I like to be interviewed for his new venture, The Good Life Project. No big deal, he was just inviting 10 people he knew in the city to take part in a relaxed (his words not mine) Charlie Rose style interview where we would talk about what it means to lead a good life. The videos would be broadcast online and released to his 37, 000 fans (if we go by twitter). Oh and by the way, the interview was on Wednesday. Was I in?

Of course I was in. I was flattered, excited and ever-so-slightly terrified. Public speaking is one thing. I’m used to it. I know what I’ll say and I know I’ll have the floor. An interview is something entirely different.

But I had to do it. Because this was a chance to put my mouth where my pen had been and well and truly give in to the idea of being vulnerable.

The day rolled around. A steamy New York day, the filming was running late, 2pm had rolled into 2:30, half an hour was left on the memory card, four cameras were trained on my face and three lights were flicked on. A bead of sweat crested my ankle and fell into my sandal as Jonathan turned to ask the first question.

I would like to tell you that I was eloquent and funny and composed. I’m not sure if I was any of those things. I imagine I was rather more rattled and out of control. I know that I stuttered up a storm. The cameras cut out twice and we had to begin again, palms were raised in a 5 minute warning.

And yet I survived. I felt slightly sick afterwards but I said what I wanted, or close enough, and I got my first taster of what it might be like to start marketing this book that I’m bringing out into the world.

Not easy, not a walk in the park, but exciting and funny and awkward and well worth it. Because ultimately I think that living a good life means striving, living on the edge of uncertainty, laughing at ourselves and embracing those imperfect moments when we recklessly human.

Out With It: My chameleon book

Out With It started off as a dream, a vague idea of finding myself in the voices of others. To face myself, to spend a year immersed in the subject I had spent a lifetime running away from.

As I started researching I got drawn into 100 lives across America. I spent a year as ‘the interviewer’. I listened to people’s lives, sat in their living rooms, drank their coffee and met their families. I became enchanted by each of them. What made them tick, where did they take their strength from, what worked for them, how did the rest of the world react to them?

I replayed their voices back as I transcribed their words, listened for the intonation in their voices. With my headphones on, blocking out the rest of the world, I was captivated by the variety of their stutterers, the specific cadence of each voice, their unique rhythm.

When I started writing Out With It I wanted to include all of the people I had met. Painfully I narrowed them down to a handful. My picks were neither the best nor the worst. They were just the ones I chose. The book that I wrote was a dedication to all 100 of them.

But it didn’t quite work. The characters didn’t stand out enough. The format of walking into someone’s home, or meeting in a coffee shop or even meeting on the street, started to sound repetitive. I was still hiding behind the stance of ‘the reporter’.

I had spent a year finding out about all these individuals. But, as different as we were, meeting each of them was like looking in a antique mirror. There were pieces where the reflection was dulled, where we didn’t reflect each other so clearly. But we had all worn the same shoes and any differences broadened my understanding, opening my eyes to pieces I hadn’t seen or known before.

What began as a book of oral histories morphed into a memoir. The writing was much more riddled with self-doubt and yet it was honest and vulnerable and I hopefed it would be compelling.

If I’m honest, I probably came to America searching for a cure. Not surprisingly that didn’t go so well but the book is about finding so much more than that. It is about the struggle we all make to accept ourselves as perfectly imperfect.

Struggle to write Out With It

Image courtesy of Don Moyer

10 interview tips that I learnt the hard way

I had a big interview this week (hence why I have been quiet on the blog front) so I started reading up on the notes I made years earlier about the art of interviewing.

At the end of 2008, I spent a year interviewing 100 hundred people around America. It was one of the most humbling and formative years of my life. I started off clueless. It was a crash course in the craft of interviewing and I learnt on the job. I know for sure that I started off terribly and got better (my apologies to my first few victims who sat across from me as I quizzed them Gestapo style and flicked through my reams of questions).

My year of interviews ended late in 2009 when I decided it was time to wrap up the research and start writing my book. Today it has been almost 2 years since my last formal interview.

Naturally I was vaguely petrified. My subject also happened to be one of the most famous journalists of our time. Things weren’t looking promising. So I decided to look over my notes and try to take some of my own advice. These were some of the interview tips that I came up with:

  1. A list of heavily researched questions might be a good framework but the best interviews are conversations. Largely one-sided conversations. People have stories that they want to tell. It is the interviewers job to get out of the way and let them tell it. Listening, really listening, matters more than anything else in getting a gutsy interview. Watch their bodies and their faces and their eyes. Listen for the inflection in their voice. Pay attention to what they are telling you not what you want to hear.
  2. Care about the people you’re interviewing. Take time with them, don’t hurry the process along. If they can see that you are genuinely curious about their thoughts they may open up to you. I spent 3 hours with Bill Withers. A lot of the interview was just chatting, getting to know each other. We giggled a lot.
  3. Let pauses linger. Silence can be uncomfortable but try to relax. Let the time expand and let them say everything they want to say.
  4. Looking stupid to them is worse than looking stupid to your reader. Lots of scientists I spoke to had to describe things to me as if I was a schoolchild. I have no doubt that they questioned my intelligence but I came away with a fuller understanding of the story than if I had feigned knowledge I didn’t have.
  5. Use lots of open-ended and follow-up questions: “What do you mean by that?”, “What makes you say that?”, “What happened next?”, “Can you give me an example?”
  6. Ask one question at a time. It is all too tempting to structure a multi-part question but don’t get complicated, don’t try and sound clever when you’re asking questions. Remember that it is the answers, not the questions, that matter. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don’t ask anything that could be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  7. Think about the timing. Don’t jump in with your hardest hitting question. You haven’t built up the trust yet. Start broad and go specific. On the flip side, don’t leave your most important question to the end. You might run out of time.
  8. What’s the news? Listen out for something surprising or something they haven’t mentioned before.
  9. Don’t self censor. Just ask.
  10. This may be a personal bias but I’m not a fan of phone interviews. My clumsiness comes out (I hung up on Jack Welch and Skype ruthlessly disconnected Emily Blunt) and I find it difficult to read people. My best interviews have been in people’s homes. Maybe it is a trust thing. I interviewed Bill Walton in his sitting room recovering from surgery and it was one of my most honest and moving interviews.

I’m still learning. Any comments or ideas for you would be amazing to hear.

Luckily the interview went well. I was nervous as hell but my recorder worked like a charm and my poor victim was an awesome storyteller. Now I just have to write something vaguely cohesive. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Bill Withers: Still Cool

It is one of life’s more pesky ironies that I cannot sing. My virtual tone-deafness has always seemed unfair in light of my stutter. Away from the delicate ears of others, I have been known to belt out the odd 80s classic in the shower and I have never once stuttered. In fact, of all the stutterers I have met, I have yet to hear about one person who stutters whilst singing. Grabbing on to this little factoid a surprising number of people have suggested that I turn my daily conversations into a real life musical. No doubt I would be completely fluent singing away in my padded cell.

Stuttering singers span the breath of music history from Carly Simon to Mel Tillis and Gareth Gates (for those of you Brits who were teenagers back in 2002 and remember the early novelty of Pop Idol). But there is no stuttering singer as quintessentially cool as Bill Withers. I remember thinking that when I interviewed him back in 2009 for my book on stuttering and I felt that again last night when I stumbled on the recent documentary ‘Still Bill’ in my Netflix account.

bill withers

“Some people are born cool”, he observes in his trademark rolling voice. It seems like he must be talking about himself until he cracks a smile and carries on, “I was an asthmatic stutterer from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” His playful wit establishes from the beginning that this is a rare musician’s documentary. There are no fawning crowds, no crumbling rock and roll hedonism. Rather we are given a picture of Bill’s daily life as he spends time with his family, records music with his daughter, shoots the breeze with friends and celebrates his 70th birthday.

We are shown a humble man who chose to walk away from fame for a quiet life, and is happy that he did. As he tells his kids, “It’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful you’re gonna have to pass through All Right. And when you get to All Right, take a good look round and get used to it because that maybe is as far as you’re gonna go.” Is he talking about himself? It seems hard to believe but the line reminded me of something he said when I interviewed him years ago. I had been sitting with him in his wife’s office for almost two hours when he got a call from Simply Red’s management asking him to come as a VIP to his next show. His surprise morphed into gratitude and, when I asked him if that kind of thing happened all the time, he laughed, “No sugar, most people think I’m dead these days or too old to walk over there.”

Both in the documentary and in person you can see only a hint of Bill’s lifelong stutter. It is so slight as to be barely noticeable but there is a strong feeling that this seemingly minor challenge has shaped his life. He comes across as a deeply emotional man and we see him quietly cry twice in the film. Once from fatherly pride and once as he talks to a group of children that make up Our Time’s theatre group for kids who stutter. Intimately indentifying with them, he observes that stuttering can make other people nervous and says, “We have to go just that little bit further to help them feel at ease.”

Bill seems like a man that treads softly and makes a big noise. The film is peppered with wise, unscripted words. It is about a man who knows who he is. He’s still the same guy he was growing up in Slab Fork, he is still the guy he was when he started his family and he is still a stutterer.

If you missed it, you can always catch it on Netflix here.