Behind The Stories

'Don't Be Afraid Of Silence': Interview Tips From NPR Host Rachel Martin

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a busy day on our country's calendar. Some Americans will be entertaining family, and some will brave the crowds in search of Black Friday deals, others will be working and this year some will observe the second day of Hanukkah. However, with its proximity to Thanksgiving and the holiday season, it's no coincidence that Friday, November 29, also happens to be the National Day of Listening, a holiday started by our friends at StoryCorps in 2008.

In the midst of all of the busyness surrounding Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, it's easy to forget to take the time to listen to one another. On National Day of Listening, StoryCorps encourages everyone to take a few minutes to interview a loved one.

The complex emotional histories we share with our families can sometimes make it hard to really listen to each other. Even NPR journalists and hosts who conduct interviews for a living will tell you personal conversations are some of the most challenging. They can also be the most rewarding.

Weekend Edition Host Rachel Martin with Sunday Conversation guest Denyse Gordon, Miss Veteran America. i i

hide captionWeekend Edition Host Rachel Martin with Sunday Conversation guest Denyse Gordon, Miss Veteran America.

Amy Ta/NPR
Weekend Edition Host Rachel Martin with Sunday Conversation guest Denyse Gordon, Miss Veteran America.

Weekend Edition Host Rachel Martin with Sunday Conversation guest Denyse Gordon, Miss Veteran America.

Amy Ta/NPR

Each week, in a segment called The Sunday Conversation, Weekend Edition Sunday Host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines. This year, Martin has spoken with NFL veteran Nate Jackson about pain and his professional journey, Ms. Veteran America 2012 Denyse Gordon about sexual abuse in the military and comedian Jamie Kilstein about addiction. These are only some of the intimate dialogues you hear each week in The Sunday Conversation.

In light of the upcoming National Day of Listening, we asked Martin for some tips on asking difficult questions and engaging friends and family on personal topics. Here's her advice and examples she shared from her own interviews:

  1. Start by asking general questions that allow the person you're speaking with to give the version of the story they are most comfortable with sharing right off the bat.
  2. Don't interrupt. This can be hard because personal stories, especially from trauma victims, can sometimes take a long time to convey. Be patient and listen.
  3. Make a mental note of when the person walked right up to the most personal or perhaps painful part of the story and then stopped and re-directed. Go back to that place. Ask them in a straightforward yet un-aggressive manner, to explore that difficult part of the story. The worst thing that can happen is that they decline. But you won't know unless you ask. Most of the time, they will go there.


    Listen here at 9:24 into the interview

    This is an excerpt from an interview with Jamison Manwaring, a practicing Mormon who came out as gay. The conflict at the heart of the issue is that Jamison wants to have family - a possibility that the church doesn't condone for gay couples. We thought it was important to ask Josh, Jamison's brother, whether he was comfortable with Jamison marrying. It was important to ask the question tactfully, but firmly. Josh sidesteps the question a bit the first time, I rephrased the question - making it more direct, but still tactful - and Josh opened up with a more revealing response.

  4. Don't be vague in the hopes that the person you're talking to will just wander into the most challenging parts of the story on their own. Use short, direct questions and say what you mean.


    Listen here at 4:23 into the interview

    I spoke with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about racial profiling in relation to lawsuits filed against Barney's and the NYPD. Coates explains that for African American men like himself, racial profiling is part of everyday life in stores, driving cars and even walking down the street. This unfair experience is a result of culturally entrenched racial biases in this country.

    But I thought it was important to point out that many of those biases are natural, subconscious, and often, well-intentioned. I ask Coates to consider the law enforcement official's perspective as someone whose job it is to make split second decisions that involve the safety of others. I go further to ask Coates if he has ever found himself making assumptions based on race. His answer? "Of course." These important questions demonstrates the complexity of an issue that is much more than black and white.

  5. Know the limits of the conversation. If you're asked directly once and they've declined. Don't ask again. Move to another aspect of the story.
  6. Be compassionate but don't stray into sympathy or empathy. This is about them, not you and how you relate to their story.
  7. Respect the person you're talking with and the story they are telling.


    Listen here at 3:43 into the interview

    This interview with a former child sex trafficking victim hits an emotional low when my guest, Sheila White, describes a bond similar to love that develops between a victim and the only person providing her with basic needs like food and shelter, her pimp. It was an opportunity for me to ask Sheila to reflect on that experience without wallowing in how difficult it must have been. Instead, my next question acknowledges that Sheila has come a long way since she experienced those feelings by asking her how she was able to re-write her own narrative as a person of worth.

  8. Don't be afraid of silence. Sometimes the best follow up question is to say nothing. Especially after the person has just revealed something important. More often than not, if you are quiet and give them the space to keep sharing – they will.

NPR hosts and journalists are conducting their own interviews for The National Day of Listening this week. Check out these special pieces from NPR*:

  • Weekend Edition Sunday: Correspondent Mike Pesca interviews his high school teacher.
  • Morning Edition; Thursday, Nov. 28: Host Renee Montagne interviews her show's producer Jim Wildman.
  • Tell Me More; Friday, Nov. 29: The 'Barbershop guys' talk with Host Michel Martin about people who have made an impact in their lives.
  • All Things Considered; Friday, Nov. 29: NPR Legal Correspondent Nina Totenberg and her husband share how they met and fell in love.

*Schedule is tentative and subject to change.

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