Expert Kindness

by Bonnie Swift


When you work in radio, you have the power to record, edit, broadcast, and comment upon another person’s statement. Once you have an interview on tape, that’s it. That person’s voice is frozen in time. If you critique her argument, then she won’t have the chance to respond. If you insult her, she won’t be able to defend herself, or to insult you back. If you muscle all the advantages inherent to your position, you could really take the upper hand. But it’s better for everybody, including your listener, if you remain kind. Kindness and generosity are central to great storytelling.

I was reminded of this while I was listening to radio superstar Ira Glass on This American Life’s Kid Politics episode. In Act Two, Climate Changes. People Don’t.Glass mediates a conversation between a climate science education expert (Dr. Johnson) and a 14 year-old girl (Erin), who is not convinced that climate change is real. Glass gives Dr. Johnson the opportunity to run through the most compelling evidence for climate change to Erin, then asks Erin whether she’s at all convinced by what Dr. Johnson has said.

The central question is whether the American education system is in a position to persuade the public that climate change is real. (In 2009, only 57% of the US population believed that there was solid evidence for climate change.) Can science ever win over a skeptic?

You can feel in 14 year-old Erin’s voice that she’s a little intimidated by the situation. But her nervousness subsides as it becomes clear that Glass has only good intentions. As the interviewer and host, it’s up to Glass to provide both of his guests a safe space for expression. That he is so nice is anything but accidental or casual; if you listen closely, you get the sense that his kindness is complex, considered, and strategic.

He sets up the safe space from the beginning, by introducing Erin as a “really great, really smart kid.” After Dr. Johnson covers some tricky material about the Earth’s wobble, Glass says to Erin, “So I feel like some of this has gotten a little bit technical. Erin, before I ask you whether you find any of this convincing, do you have questions about any of this?” When she says, “Not really, I think I understand most of it,” he responds, “That’s the way I feel too. I feel like I understand most of it.”

He says, “Yah,” and “Mmhm,” while she’s speaking, like little nods of agreement. And at one point he summarizes how he thinks Erin might be feeling, “ you’re caught up in a he-said-she-said kind of argument?” and asks if that’s correct. She says “Kind of, yes.” He empathises with Erin every chance he gets, and never tells her that she is wrong.

There is inherent drama in the unfair match between a climate-science expert and a 14 year-old skeptic. But Glass diffuses the tension by making young Erin the authority; she is the one with the power to say whether the evidence is convincing or not. As listeners, we are able to relax, knowing that in spite of the risky premise of the experiment, nobody is going to get hurt.

Glass being so kind also gives Erin the opportunity to open up. This is beneficial to us listeners as well, because Erin says things that she may have otherwise been uncomfortable saying. So we come to better understand the logic behind her skepticism.

Imagine that you’re Erin when you listen to this piece. Even though there might be some disagreement lingering, you’ll get the sense that she could listen to this story and not be offended. That’s probably a good litmus test for knowing whether you’re being kind or not. Could your interviewee listen and feel fairly treated?

Aside from increasing your chances of making and keeping friends, kindness has the added benefit of improving any story you produce. In this case, Glass’ kindness allows the piece to develop in ways that it never could have developed without it.

‘Climate Changes. People Don’t.’
(14 min) Act 2 in Episode 424, Kid Politics
This American Life 1/14/2011.


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