It started with a story. A story told by a man that you know has seen and felt too much. He’s pretty open about it and if not for the occasional lost look and catch in the throat I’m not sure if people would notice. I know some didn’t. It could be because he is someone I greatly admire or because his past is my future but I felt every word he did and didn’t say. As he recounted his experiences in war zones and humanitarian catastrophes I flipped between wanting to ask him to stop and wanting to sit beside him and hold his hand. I did neither. It was a training session and we all needed to be trained.
This training session was on the art of the interview. More specifically the art of interviewing within the humanitarian or development context which loosely translates as how to interview a stranger who has limited or no experience with foreigners about predominantly personal and upsetting topics. We all have our different styles for this. I tend to pull funny faces at children to make them laugh – only when culturally
appropriate of course. I ask general questions about a woman’s clothes and hair and share embarrassing stories about myself. And then in the moments where we are laughing or smiling quietly at each other they, for some reason tell me their story.
I’m not sure if I would be as trusting with my vulnerability. As an exercise in the training we were asked to role-play an interview where the interviewer has to ask their subject about the saddest day in their life. With the exception of one person no one told that story. They still told a sad tale but not the saddest. Even I, as an observer and support facilitator, mentally self selected a sad story but knew it wasn’t my saddest moment. Why would I want to share that? Why would I want to go to that place again?
When I tell a story I want people to think I’m smart and funny. Ok funny might be pushing it, so lets downgrade that to interesting. Most of all I like to pretend I am tough. I like jumping about in the boxing ring throwing punches at stuffed bags. I like to drink, wine mostly but will take to shots if I sense a challenge coming my way. I hold people’s stares, I cross my arms, I do a lot of things to try to convince the world I am tough. I don’t think anyone really believes me, but generally they seem to indulge the pretense. But we all know the truth. Things get to me, I get sad, I cry and yes I even occasionally hug my favourite childhood teddy bear for comfort.
During the training one of my staff members looked directly at me and asked if I considered them not doing their job properly if they didn’t push someone to tell their saddest story because you could see it causing distress. I instantly felt my inner marketer, communicator and humanitarian fighting it out. I babbled out an answer in the pressure of that moment. I don’t recall what I said. But I do know I have backed away from questions that I probably should have asked and I have switched off my recorder when the conversation got too painful and I was asked to do so. Somewhere in the midst of gathering a story there is a place where your inner communicator and conscious sit at peace with each other. Some call it compromise, some call it decency, and some call it integrity. I just think of it as being human. And being human is very important for a humanitarian.