I was among the 17 million people who tuned to CBS to watch the highly anticipated interview between Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
I have little to no interest in the monarchy, nor in American celebrity culture or gossip. But morbid curiosity, pandemic ennui and some compelling teasers sucked me into the dynamics and drama surrounding the royal family.
We bystanders may never know what’s really true. There are always two sides to every story, and multiple parties are going to internalize and interpret the same set of circumstances in multiple ways. In the end, I felt compassion for the couple and their children.
Their answers to Oprah’s questions seemed sincere by all accounts, even with editing. If they did in fact experience racism and a lack of support for serious mental health issues, their course of action seems reasonable. We should all be rooting for reconciliation and peace.
But it was Oprah who shone the brightest in the interview. Commentators have written about Oprah’s pseudo-religious charisma and the influence she has wielded over women and their habits for decades. But these did not stand out in this interview as her crowning achievement or most meaningful aspects of her legacy.
It was her command of the art of conversation that was on full display.
Oprah is one of our culture’s greatest interviewers. She practices what psychologists call “active listening.” Her questions, both initial and follow-up, demonstrate that she’s not merely repeating words that she’s heard, nor is she listening in order to respond with her own interpretation or point of view.
She’s fully present; nothing and no one else matters other than the person who is speaking, and it’s clear that her interviewees feel that.
Active listening is conducted in a few ways: Sometimes a listener will summarize what she has heard, using the speaker’s own words. Other times she’ll ask for clarification to get a better or clearer understanding of what the speaker is trying to communicate. Most important, the listener never interrupts the person who is speaking.
Oprah asks hard, pointed questions, without the “gotcha” instinct. There’s only empathy. She makes her listeners feel seen and understood, as if she’s crawled up inside their minds and hearts.
She did this for decades on her talk show with people from all backgrounds and experiences: troubled celebrities, people who committed unthinkable crimes, even religious sisters with whom she had little familiarity. Her goal is to understand other human beings: what motivates them, makes them afraid, what gives them hope.
Much could be said about how journalists could learn a few lessons from her. The finest reporters ask the most interesting questions. They ask for clarification until they can honestly represent what someone has said. They pick the most representative sound bites to share, not fragments of comments that will generate clicks. They are curious, not cynical, inquisitive, not inquisitors.
But we could all stand to pay attention to the kinds of questions we ask, how empathetically we listen and whether or not we approach other people in their complexity and complications, rather than with a caricature of them in mind.
So much of today’s “discourse,” if one can call it that, takes place in a context in which one’s conversation partner is reduced to a single dimension: Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, white or Black.
It is conducted in a spirit of agitation at best and anger at worst. It’s laden with sarcasm, comebacks and more than a little self-righteousness and moral superiority.
Oprah gave the world a master class in how to engage in better conversation. But Christians are already familiar with the greatest model of how to encounter other people, how to have a dialogue that is engaging, empathetic and enlightening.
Who among us has not been moved by the most perfect, pointed question ever asked: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38).
As we move forward this Lent, let’s consider how well we listen, what kind of questions we ask others and what God is asking of us. That threefold examination of conscience is bound to lead to more empathy and understanding, something Christians can offer a world desperately in need of it.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and is a columnist for Catholic News Service.