Ideas catch us in the most unlikely situations. In many cases, we're in a different place than we imagined to be ―the famous Archimedes eureka in the bath tub, which literally means “I have found” in ancient Greek― or in a predicament we did not anticipate ―our wish is granted.
Which explains how good ideas are born, and (partly) how they get done. The work is where value increases. Making it is a fundamental step. But we should not knock down the role of thinking. How we think about ideas determines what we do with them. What is our metaphor? Are ideas food, people, plants, products, commodities, resources, money… or are they tools?
When we look at “understanding as seeing” ideas are light-sources and discourse is a light-medium. Our word choices create entire worlds in the minds and imagination of the people we talk with ―how we think about ideas determines what we end up doing with them.
Marc Pachter, who has conducted live interviews with some of the most intriguing characters in recent American history, is helping us see ideas as light sources and conversation or interview as light-medium.
The secret of how to conduct great interviews is energy, and specifically the sustaining life force of engaging conversations that is hard to fake. What are the worst and best kinds of interviews and how can we help create more spaces where the second kind thrive?
Catching up with ourselves
As Marc Pachter says, there is more to it than meets the eye. How to go from worst to best in one conversation and a quarter, if we pay attention (emphasis mine):
There's an extraordinary woman named Clare Boothe Luce. It'll be your generational determinant as to whether her name means much to you. She did so much. She was a playwright. She did an extraordinary play called “The Women.” She was a congresswoman when there weren't very many congresswomen. She was editor of Vanity Fair, one of the great phenomenal women of her day.
Incidentally, I call her the Eleanor Roosevelt of the Right. She was sort of adored on the Right the way Eleanor Roosevelt was on the Left. And, in fact, when we did the interview ―I did the living self-portrait with her― there were three former directors of the CIA basically sitting at her feet, just enjoying her presence.
I thought, this is going to be a piece of cake, because I always have preliminary talks with these people for just maybe 10 or 15 minutes. We never talk before that because if you talk before, you don't get it on the stage. So she and I had a delightful conversation.
We were on the stage and then ―by the way, spectacular. It was all part of Clare Boothe Luce's look. She was in a great evening gown. She was 80, almost that day of the interview, and there she was and there I was, and I just proceeded into the questions. She stonewalled me. It was unbelievable. Anything that I would ask, she would turn around, dismiss, and I was basically up there ―any of you in the moderate-to-full entertainment world know what it is to die onstage. I was dying. She was absolutely not giving me a thing.
I began to wonder what was going on, and you think while you talk, and basically, I thought, I got it. When we were alone, I was her audience. Now I'm her competitor for the audience. That's the problem here, and she's fighting me for that, and so then I asked her a question ―I didn't know how I was going to get out of it― I asked her a question about her days as a playwright, and again, characteristically, instead of saying, “Oh yes, I was a playwright, and this is what blah blah blah,” she said, “Oh, playwright. Everybody knows I was a playwright. Most people think that I was an actress. I was never an actress.” But I hadn't asked that, and then she went off on a tear, and she said, “Oh, well, there was that one time that I was an actress. It was for a charity in Connecticut when I was a congresswoman, and I got up there,” and she went on and on, “And then I got on the stage.”
Then she turned to me and said, “And you know what those young actors did? They upstaged me.” She said, “Do you know what that is?” Just withering in her contempt.
And I said, “I'm learning.”
She looked at me, and it was like the successful arm-wrestle, and then, after that, she delivered an extraordinary account of what her life really was like.
She caught herself in the act. Clare Boothe Luce was a remarkable person. Though not attracted to her politically Pachter found a way to her life force. She died of brain tumor, but before she did, she had one last dinner party with a small group of people, including him. He says:
she was in horrible pain. We all knew that. She stayed in her room. Everybody came. The butler passed around canapes. The usual sort of thing. Then at a certain moment, the door opened and she walked out perfectly dressed, completely composed. The public self, the beauty, the intellect, and she walked around and talked to every person there and then went back into the room and was never seen again. She wanted the control of her final moment, and she did it amazingly.
Some of us get to choreograph our lives this way. Some of us arm wrestle throughout. For example, when he interviewed Steve Martin about his upbringing, there was a little bit of that. The comedian known for having said, “be so good they can't ignore you” rather than “follow your passion” was known for exploring lots of ideas and getting feedback systematically.
But he didn't seem to want to explore his own upbringing, which he talks about in his book. Says Pachter:
we were sitting there, and almost toward the beginning of the interview, I turned to him and I said, “Steve,” or “Mr. Martin, it is said that all comedians have unhappy childhoods. Was yours unhappy?”
He looked at me, you know, as if to say, “This is how you're going to start this thing, right off?” And then he turned to me, not stupidly, and he said, “What was your childhood like?”
And I said ―these are all arm wrestles, but they're affectionate― and I said, “My father was loving and supportive, which is why I'm not funny.”
And he looked at me, and then we heard the big sad story. His father was an SOB, and, in fact, he was another comedian with an unhappy childhood, but then we were off and running.
What we need to find then is key, the question that's going to allow the conversation to proceed. So we can see what someone is saying, how it potentially looks different from our point of view. Ideal conversations here are about fair exchanges and reciprocity.
That is what turns an interview from worst into best.
Networking as a practice
Networking is a lot more than a business strategy to advance our professional position. It's also a way to test our ideas, to practice what it feels like to be in conversation with them… and engage with others. It's an opportunity to notice what happens at various levels of discourse ―what we're learning, the dance between listening and reflecting, connecting, and values, and so on.
Oxford scholar and thinker Theodore Zeldin says the future of networking, is more than a device for creative media free-lancers, or a rescue package for redundant executives. Because most of the population does not fit into these categories so we need to expand our definition for a clear vision of the future.
Networking will not realize its full potential until it benefits everybody, leaving no one out. Otherwise, we remain stuck in the rut which infuriated our ancestors, that the networks of the privileged were impenetrable by ordinary people.
Zeldin talks about four areas of connection:
1. Finding links between ideas that seem unrelated ―what you need to be imaginative is courage, which comes from curiosity and empathy, with a dash of experience.
2. Searching for what people have in common ―to do that we discover compatibility, what makes us human, and from that we develop strategies which are beautiful as well as efficient.
3. Developing friendships that override gender, racial and national stereotypes ―all languages are welcome, although I might need your help to understand and welcome you properly.
4. Seeking to weave together networks of experience ―so we can learn from each other. Every profession with intelligent people in it will want to be more.
Networking is a process through which we enable who we are to be activated ―with empathy, compassion, and respect. But it is also one of the best ways we can use conversation as a tool to take control of what we're thinking and saying in real time.
Ideas help us view business problems in new and novel ways. Based on the research conducted by Stephen Denny, together with Dr. Paul Leinberger at Denny Leinberger Strategy, current macro trends capture many of the declarations we hear in current conversations clearly:
1. Seeking control in an out-of-control world
2. Raw (the desire for unfiltered, direct communication)
3. Heroic credibility (the desire for bold, brave points of view)
When we approach conversation as an opportunity to interview someone, we may be surprised at the quality of the ideas that come across and create the opportunity for stronger connections. Next week, in part III of this series, we'll take a look at simple ways to draw insights from interviews.
Further reading (please share if you enjoyed it):
[Archimedes in his bath via Getty images]