I’m now into the third week of my research trip here in PNG. The past week has been filled with interviews so I haven’t had the chance to do much writing. This trip I've begun conducting my first oral history interviews. Today I wanted to talk about what this whole process has taught me about listening or more specifically about silence. I’ve been aware for a while now that I listen in a very extroverted way. I give lots of non-verbal affirmation or I jump in with a new question whenever there is a short silence. This form of ‘listening’ usually means I eat up all the silences and the natural pauses that provide breathing space for people to think.
Listening back to my oral history recordings I’ve seen how unhelpful this can be. I cringed a lot listening to the first set of interviews I conducted here. In reviewing the audio, I noticed there were so many places where I didn’t leave any space or I tried to direct the conversation in a certain direction that was not going with the flow of the story the person was telling. Instead of bringing out the best in my participant's story, often I just got in the way of the narrative they were sharing. Then my interviewee either had to abandon their train of thought or just ignore me and keep talking. I was horrified when I realised I had done this in multiple interviews, and wondered how much better they might have been if I had been more comfortable with leaving silence and allowing my interviewee the space to fully answer my questions and bring their own thoughts to the table.
Thankfully, I started this process of listening back to the interviews and transcribing them early on and so I was able to catch myself. While the interviews weren’t all bad and my participants told amazing stories in spite of me, I wanted to get more comfortable with the silence and really allow my participants space to thoughtfully respond to my questions. I also realised if I treated the interviewee as a partner in my research and mapped out where I saw the interview going, they tended to instinctively work through my different questions as we went along without me even having to ask them. While my earlier interviews were shorter and more stilted, my later interviews grew longer and more comfortable. The silence allowed time not only for the other person to think, but also reminded me to really see them and be present in their story. In the pauses, I had time to adjust to the new information they were sharing and link the different aspects of their life together in my mind, so when it did come time to ask a question it was usually much more appropriate and the response more fruitful.
I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to learn this lesson, even though it's been painful. Being comfortable with silence is valuable for so much more than just oral histories. It’s in the quiet we have time to reflect and process. It gives us time to realign our hearts and minds and actions, and to be more intentional about the way we interact with the world around us. While I’m sure I’m going to have to relearn this lesson over and over, I want to make sure I make the most of this experience to cultivate the art of silence.