Love him or loathe him, you must have heard of him. Piers Morgan, former (and youngest ever) editor of a UK national newspaper the Daily Mirror, and until recently, chat show host on one of America’s biggest TV networks, has found himself looking for another gig after said show was cancelled due to falling ratings. This was commented on at some length in the media both here and in the US due to the high profile nature of the show, which was previously hosted by the interviewing legend that was Larry King for many years before he retired.
Jeremy Clarkson very recently wrote that Piers lost his job because ‘everyone hates him’. It’s probably an exaggeration, I certainly don’t hate Piers Morgan, mainly because that would elevate him to a level of importance in my life that he simply doesn’t occupy. Then again, Clarkson has a long standing feud going on with Morgan so I can understand his views.
I overheard a comment on a BBC show reviewing the newspapers just after the story broke, and the gentleman was heard to say that he hoped that Piers Morgan was axed not because he was British, but because he was awful at interviewing. Morgan himself described his technique as ‘provocative’ for those whose views he opposed, where other parties felt he was simply argumentative. For the guests he liked, he was reported to take on a more genial approach (‘sycophantic’ is how it was described by others). The commentator did raise some interesting issues on the art of interviewing and I’m going to use some examples via Piers Morgan to help you, the reader, reassess some of your communications with people you like, but also people you may not like.
1) As Monty Python once pointed out, an argument involves an exchange of views providing a rational counterpoint in positions, not just the automatic gainsaying of the opposing party’s views. In English, you will get nowhere arguing with someone just by telling them ‘you’re wrong’. Ever get into those kinds of arguments, even with (or especially with) people you care about? How far did that get you? To have a productive discussion with someone you disagree with, you have to know your views but also be able to explain them in a way that recognises the other person has a viewpoint, and that you have taken those views into account while holding your own views. Morgan was famous for opposing the use of guns, something that I actually agree with him on, but his audience in the majority love their guns, and he never really acknowledged that they had a right to their opinion. It’s like going to someone’s house and telling them all their furniture is rubbish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re right, and even if they know in their hearts you’re right, you probably aren’t going to get many more invitations. To successfully create a dialogue, you have to listen first. This takes some practice, as nearly everyone out there wants firstly to be heard. They want their message to be the loudest. Loudest is not necessarily most effective. Morgan’s pro-gun lobby guest was a total jerk and was very practiced at shouting, but he certainly couldn’t make an effective case.
2) If you’re only interested in your own views, you may describe yourself as ‘opinionated’. Everyone else will describe you as a jerk. I saw an interview where not only did Morgan not agree with his guest but made a habit of talking over them. If you want to irritate someone to the point that they will punch you in the face, just have a conversation with them, and interrupt them every time they are halfway through their sentence. Then do this every time they open their mouth. It drives people mad, with good reason. You are putting your own opinion above that of the other person, and no-one likes that. Have you ever been interrupted while in full flow, say by a phone going off? How does that make you feel? If someone talked over you every time you wanted to say something, how much empathy do you have with that person by the end, even if you actually agree on something?
3) I learned this in a drama class I once took. We did an exercise where for the whole conversation, we had to follow someone’s statement with another prefixed by ‘Yes, and…’. This exercise was part of establishing rapport with a fellow actor which allows the dialogue to flow more effectively. Notice how with these two small words, I can communicate that I’ve acknowledged the other person’s view in the discussion, and I indicate that I will include their view in my own point coming up. The opposite of this is one the world’s favourite and least productive words, which is ‘But…’. Again a very small word, which subtly indicates ‘I hear you, however I discard everything you’ve just said in favour of my view which is…’ When you’re in conversation watch out for the use of the word ‘But’ and see how it makes you feel, especially when the other person says it following something you’ve said. Do you feel that other person really empathises with you, or that your opinion is worth less than theirs?
4) Our commentator mentioned above that Morgan had a habit of being way too chummy with guests he liked, or rather, guests he wanted to be liked by. I refer to this as ‘sucking up’, or trying too hard to be agreeable to the other person’s viewpoint in an effort to appear to be on their side. In America interviews that go this way are often referred to as ‘fluff pieces’, which to my understanding refers to people who work in the, shall we say, the ‘adult entertainment industry’ (Google ‘fluffers’ for full details). I saw this in action in a documentary where Morgan visited Dubai, and seemed to spend way too much time sucking up to rich people in an attempt to get noticed or to get an invite to an exclusive party and so on. It’s generally considered that by agreeing with everything someone says you’ll be seen to be ‘on their wavelength’, so to speak. This is not necessarily so. In fact, the ‘stars in your eyes’ or ‘hero worship’ approach doesn’t particularly go down well, or really only for very insecure people. These people will generally drain your emotional energy, and you should stay well away.
How does this help us in the art of good conversation and communication skills? There are many factors to good communication, way more than I can cover here today, but the takeaways from this are
1) Listen, and listen some more. It’s a skill that requires cultivation. You have 2 ears and 1 mouth. Use them in that proportion
2) Avoid interruptions and distractions in an important conversation. Suppress the instinct to ‘butt in’ even though the urge may be really strong. Practice with a loved one, give them 5 minutes to talk and then you take 5 minutes, with neither of you allowed to interrupt the other for any reason.
3) Go for 24hrs during which time you will avoid using the word ‘but’. It’s another skill, and you will sound like someone who listens and understands, and people love that.
4) Have a viewpoint based on a wide variety of sources. If you sound informed, people will listen to you. Make a point of conversing with other informed people and see how your horizons expand. Take yourself out of your ‘opinion’ comfort zone.
Most importantly, avoid national newspapers. You know what these editors are like. Good luck in the job hunting Piers.