A Matter of Discussion

June 11, 2018

In 2018, a lot of our conversations seem fraught. Our politics are defined by how we are different. Our media exists in non-overlapping silos. Our facts are guided by what we’d like to be true, rather than what actually is. So I explored the means by which we talk.

American PoliticsJournalismPodcasting
Berkeley, USA

Over the past half-year, I have conducted a lot of interviews. I have interviewed fellow classmates, professors, students and teachers at other colleges. I’ve also been forced off my college campus, interviewing residents of retirement communities, foster youth, and chief executives. What makes the situation interesting, however, are reasons why I have been conducting these interviews. They are rarely the same. This spring, I had three different projects require me to set down my books and go talk to another human face-to-face:

  1. A design project for Human-Centered Design (Engineering 180)
  2. An investigative report for Political Journalism (Political Science 98)
  3. An original podcast called The Discussion Collective, or DisCo

I will focus on the patterns that ran throughout each conversation. What answers did interviewees keep returning to? What topics were impossible to broach? What made for a great interview? What killed it?Every conversation had an arc on which it travelled. And while each was distinct, the primary influence on where each discussion went was me: my idea of what I wanted to hear, my preconceived notions of who the other person was, and my biases — even when unknown to myself — about why I was talking to them in the first place.

In 2018, a lot of our conversations seem fraught. Our politics are defined by how we are different. Our media exists in non-overlapping silos. Our facts are guided by what we’d like to be true, rather than what actually is. It seemed like as good a time as any to explore the means by which we talk — and how they affect our ultimate understanding.

Interviewing for Design

Human-Centered Design, popularized by well-renowned institutions like the Stanford d.school and IDEO, is a process by which to approach complex real-world problems. It is predicated on a number of concrete steps, the first of which is expertly understanding the perspectives, experiences, and needs of the persons one is designing for.

You’ll learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs.

— IDEO.org, Design Kit

The user is central to everything the designer does, and as such, the designer has to understand each user in minute detail. This spring for my Human-Centered Design class (which I’ll abbreviate “HCD”), I designed for members of a retirement home committed to social justice, men who were growing their hair out for the first time, anxious parents of students who rebuke pre-defined majors, and adult-learners who complete their bachelors only after spending decades in the working world.

HCD foregoes one-size-fits-all solutions, and instead lets the specific experiences of the individual guide the design process. So when interviewing, I found myself asking a lot of follow-up questions. Conversations were fast-paced, and typically long. Who doesn’t love talking about themselves? The HCD guide to interviewing emphasizes asking open-ended questions, focusing on emotions, and giving time for the interviewee to collect their thoughts. A lot of the people I talked to contradicted themselves, but from that tension, often arose the crux of the problem at hand.

There was one significant limitation, unfortunately. There was always a filter. No matter how hard I tried to just listen, I could not do it. After all, it was my job to design a product for the person I was talking to. No matter how much I just wanted to hear their story — in all its complexity and nuance — I had to identify the problem, and then, propose a solution.

This forced me to oversimplify what they said, to take the free-wheeling nature of conversation and boil it down to a clearly articulated paradigm. In fact, this was an explicit step within the design process: crafting a point of view. Point of view statements can be extremely helpful in guiding the next step of HCD, ideating. They give a segue from a user’s insight to a viable design solution.

They are, unfortunately, a liability to truly getting to know another person. People are more than the summation of their immediate needs. They have experiences from the past and aspirations for the future. They have innumerable stories that, as we all know, deteriorate when stuffed into a Mad Lib like structure.

I loved every interview I did for my HCD class, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there existed another layer — one that I could not attain through the design framework alone.

Interviewing for an Article

My most ambitious project of the semester was a feature article on The Claremont Independent, the lone conservative publication at the Claremont Colleges. Despite continuous calls for boycotts of the paper and widespread condemnation of the staff, they tirelessly report on incidents of liberal bias which occur on the Claremont College campuses. An excerpt from the introduction to my piece:

To many students at the Claremont Colleges, The Claremont Independent is a joke; on Facebook, The Independent is the second most popular student newspaper in the country. Granted exclusive access to national media outlets, supported by more than $30,000 in contributions from private donors, and guided by outside institutions who ensure they stay afloat, The Claremont Independent has not only survived decades of animosity at some of the country’s most progressive colleges. They, along with an intercollegiate network of like minded papers, have helped reframe the national conversation about college political life.

One of the Claremont Independent’s favorite advertisements

For the piece, my co-author and I interviewed people on all sides of the issue. We talked to their editor-in-chief and a former staff writer who was kicked out for not towing the party line. We tracked down the founder, who started the publication in 1989, and a writer who had only been on staff for a matter of months. By the end of a few months worth of interviewing, I was relatively confident I knew more about this publication than just about anyone.

I had not, however, learned much of anything about the people I had talked to. In fact, as the piece progressed, I learned less and less from each conversation. The more the article coalesced in my mind, the more I began ignoring information which did not confirm that idea.

Especially when interviewing members of the publication themselves — who often assume everyone just wants to “expose” them — I found myself actually trying to influence what they said. I would think to myself, “if only we could get the editor of The Independent to admit to x” or “our piece would be made if we had a quote which said y.” Was it dishonest journalism to push our interviewees to say publicly what we believed to already be true? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I was surprised by the degree to which we had to make editorial decisions in just about everything we did. Even my best attempt at objective reporting suffered the most prevalent kind of bias — bias by omission.

Final Thought

There is only one lesson that I am confident applied to every single interview: meet people where they are. That may mean ambushing an author while they are signing their own book or driving across Los Angeles to meet for dinner at a Jack in the Box.

Meet people where they are — and appreciate them when they do. Sitting down with a complete stranger and talking candidly is not easy. I was constantly humbled by people’s willingness to share their stories with me. Even when my ultimate aim was to call into question what I was being told, as was the case while reporting on The Claremont Independent, a respect for the process itself was necessary to candidly exchanging ideas.

How can we all work to regain this appreciation? First, we should stop focusing on who deserves the blame for the countless failed conversations we have today. In fact, I think it would be wise to take a break from our current conversations entirely — at least until we take enough time for a gut check.

This is a request that we step back and evaluate our own methods, that we critically examine the aspects of discussion typically overlooked. It will be a lengthy, iterative project, largely predicted on good-faith effort and slowly-established trust. The place to start is with ourselves.