Sun-Herald Extract: Hutcheon shares the secrets of her craft

Sun Herald 13.3.2022

As a professional conversationalist – aka journalist – I’ve been striking up conversations for more than 30 years. My estimate is that  I’ve conducted about 10,000 interviews. Journalism perfectly satisfied my restless curiosity; my need to be nosey. I’ve been fortunate to have spoken with people from all walks of life and from many corners of the Earth, from a shepherd watching his flock on the wintry slopes of Bethlehem, to an exorcist exhibiting the shackles embedded in a cell in the Vatican.

From 2010, my conversations became more structured with One Plus One on ABC Television. Over nine years I conducted more than 500 face-to-face, in-depth conversations, using questions to draw out the masterpieces and misery, triumphs and setbacks, the ebb and flow of my guests’ lives. The show featured celebrities, writers, actors and scientists as well as many little-known heroes.  These 30-minute interviews provided me with an insight into how to craft conversations.

Rebel talk is a tool I invented,  distilled from these years of personal and professional conversations. It serves as a call to action as well as an acronym: R: Readiness (research and prepare); E: empathy (to connect and engage); B: Be curious (ask questions); E: Engage attention (humble listening); and L: Lead the way (choose how to respond).

What the world needs is a dedicated band of conversation Rebels.  Not troublemakers but people who are prepared to be a bit brave: to challenge and shake things up by researching, asking questions, listening, and making informed choices to achieve better outcomes.

Through Rebel talk could we transform poor conversation habits;  speak up about problems;  generate energy, passion and optimism;  look for opportunities;  stop lecturing and giving unsolicited advice and learn the art of humble listening?

The communications revolution of the past 50 years has transformed how we live and work. It’s made the world a much smaller, more accessible place too. I witnessed this working as an international correspondent in China, the Middle East and Europe from 1995–2008 and after that as a news presenter. From a studio the size of a cupboard in Sydney you can cover news breaking in Scandinavia. Humanity is unrelentingly connected.

Yet despite this unparalleled level of connection, how much value do we still place in face-to-face communication? And are we gradually losing the ability to communicate?

In late 2019, a challenge emerged that is redefining how we communicate. COVID-19 began spreading around the world. We are at the intersection of a number of crises including controlling tje pandemic, economic distress, disinformation, environmental degradation, inadequate safety nets, gender inequality and at times, government ineptitude. On an individual level, we feel numbness: elements of fatigue, anxiety and stress. We are in a state of burnout.

I started to ask myself, is the pandemic a catalyst to rethink how we communicate? Could we break through the numbness and discover how to talk like Rebels?

Conversation doesn’t come easily to everybody. A third of us love to chat and will talk any time of the day on any subject. But the remaining two-thirds of us are not chatty types. We find conversation challenging because of shyness, introversion, social anxiety, communication disabilities or learning difficulties or because we don’t feel fluent or articulate.

‘‘Almost all of us have some kind of communication problem that we don’t know we have,’’ says actor and science-communicator Alan Alda.

Yet most of us think we are pretty good at conversation and any problems belong to the other person.
While the education system teaches us writing and numbers, few of us are ever taught the art of talking: oracy. We aren’t trained how to understand another person or how to talk clearly. We aren’t encouraged to challenge ourselves for our own benefit. We aren’t instructed how to share our opinions or disagree respectfully. Some of us are shamed for having the ‘‘wrong opinion’’ and silenced because our views offend others.

Former Paralympian (and one of my successors on One Plus One) Kurt Fearnley told me ‘‘one of the things that is uniquely Australian is that we admire people who don’t complain. You’re a whinger if you complain’’.

Are we a nation of loudmouths or are we just loud?

Where do you stand on the conversation ladder?

Are you patient, compliant, un-complaining?

Are you forgiving or do you hold grudges?

Do you discuss differences with your friends or blank someone who hurts your feelings?

Do you relish or run from confrontation? Do you value heart-felt apologies?

Conversation is at the heart of our lives and this book is an invitation to re-examine your communication style, learn new skills and choose braver outcomes. It will help you: get to the point;  understand and be understood; approach difficult conversations; strengthen relationships and networks; be more assertive; develop curiosity; be kinder to yourself, and others as a result; develop quality conversations.