In my work as a writer, I do a fair bit of transcribing interviews. I do it manually, playing and rewinding like it’s the 90s. What I have found, when listening back and transcribing an interview, is the fascinating phenomenon of being able to really listen to the conversation again.
Listening to the transcript of what I thought was a pretty straightforward interview, I realise that, oh, that is what the person was really saying. Meanwhile I thought she was actually saying something else. And then when I said that, she answered softly to the effect of that, but I was too busy going on about something else to really get it.
I thought I understood, but I was wrong. I come away from the interview convinced I know what we spoke about, but upon transcribing, I find a completely different layer that I had missed because of my own insensitivity or lack of communication skills. It makes one realise what a sophisticated form of communication a conversation really is and how much we must miss in our everyday interactions. Communication itself is really complex and not as easy as we sometimes assume.
You’d think we’d have it down by now, but I suspect not. I am beginning to learn that the art of communicating – and listening especially – can be constantly improved. One shudders at the implications, but perhaps I have not improved on my communication skills since I first mastered dialogue. One’s drawing ability atrophies at the level where you last stopped practising it. If you’ve never been a working visual artist, you might find your ability to draw is stuck at the level of a grade 3 pupil – the year Mrs Bruwer said, “Okay, put down your crayons. Let’s learn to do a C-pattern.”
In the same way, some of us might have stopped learning to communicate around the age of three, when we had our first functional conversations. From then on, we focussed on learning more and more words.
In the same way, some of us – myself included – might have stopped learning to communicate around the age of three, when we had our first functional conversations. From then on, we focussed on learning more and more words. We learned to talk. But we learned to talk to people, not to talk with them.
I believe many of our social problems come from this neglected skill, which also plagues my clumsy interviews. In society, we are not interviewing each other, but we are engaged in dialogue. Our politicians are, our thought leaders are, and we ourselves are in constant interaction on social media.
Painstakingly curated echo chambers aside, when we do speak to people with other opinions, or consider their statements, do we listen? Do we skim from buzzword to buzzword and leap to categorise their opinion in our relevant mental folder? Or do we read the words, hear them, feel them and understand the emotions that led to their uttering? Communication of course is far more than verbal, words are just the nearest, most practical, blunt tools we have to hand.
And even our dialogue skills are often those of three-year-olds, but further handicapped by a lifetime of ingrained attitudes. We assume we know what the other person is saying, so we talk over them and make our own point, which they then perhaps assume they understand and don’t really hear either. Transcribing interviews has taught me not only the difficulties faced by transcription software, but the need for proper listening skills. And quality earphones.