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NPR’s Terry Gross on Connecting with Others

By Risa Wilkerson on October 22nd, 2014

If you want to know how to engage in a meaningful conversation with someone you’ve never met, listen to Terry Gross speak. I had the pleasure of hearing her perspectives at the recent Communications Network conference in Philadelphia. As the longstanding host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, she has earned numerous awards for her work and, after 39 years of getting people to open up to her in a short amount of time, I knew she’d have interesting stories and lessons to share. As she described her style of relating, I instantly thought of the healthy communities movement, which depends on collaborative relationships and meaningful dialogue. Here are three takeaways from her remarks:

  1. Build trust. Terry always tells her interviewees to let her know if she is asking something too personal. That helps to build trust, she said, gives her more confidence to ask hard questions and allows people to be their authentic selves. Trust is vital to the community-change process as well. Invite people to share when they feel boundaries have been crossed (i.e., they are uncomfortable with a request or they believe the structure of a partnership doesn’t invite honest dialogue). This will take time and intentionality to work, but it’s critical to long-term success.
  2. Be respectful. For Terry, that means doing her research and not wasting interviewees’ time. Knowing their personal story and what they do helps Terry craft questions that convey her respect for them. And, she said, the more you care about them and their answers, the more likely you are to get a good story. As advocates, we’re not seeking a one-time story; we’re forming a partnership for social change. How much more important is it, then, to understand context, history and what matters to the people with whom we’re working?
  3. Focus on others. An audience member asked why Terry doesn’t share more about herself on the show. “I’m just not that interesting,” she said, “and the show isn’t about me.” By focusing on the interviewees, it allows them to open up. In addition, when talking about conflict, she said, “When someone gives me a hard time, I don’t take it personally.” When we work with elected officials, nonprofit allies, resident advocates and others to effect change, it is easy to fold our personal identities into the work. But it’s important to remember that healthy communities work is not, ultimately, about us. To create something that lasts, we should keep the focus on others and let them shine.

As Terry reflected on the length of time she’s been at her work, she said she had no idea she’d be privileged enough to keep doing it for so long. She said she’s continuously grateful that she can “do this another day.” Above all the other things she does to succeed, I believe her gratitude is one of the most important. Her authenticity was evident as she shared her experiences and joy for the work. I hope we are all able to say the same as we connect with others and engage collaboratively in healthy communities work.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.