I finally learned to how to deal with nasty phone calls from upset readers.It’s called empathic listing. I mastered it at a recent reporter training session in Reno, Nev., titled “Listening Isn’t Waiting Your Turn To Talk.” It works like this: Instead of attempting to stand your ground on the phone while a reader badgers you, empathic listening teaches you to just shuck away your self respect and plead guilty to that which you’re being accused.Or something like that. To be an empathic listener, you don’t formulate defensive responses. You sympathize with each caller, even if you think they’re out of line. Even if the caller happens to be Rush Limbaugh. When a caller accuses you of something, the appropriate reply should be: “So, if I’m listening correctly, you’re saying I ….”I tried this new technique last week when an older woman called to complain about the coverage of the Aspen High School varsity football team this fall.Like most callers, I think this reader was surprised that I called her back.After an initial greeting, I readied myself for a humbling exchange.”So you called because, if I was listening correctly, you thought the coverage of the high school football team this fall was insufficient?” I said.”Yes,” she said. “You didn’t cover the team all fall.”My tailbone started sending shooting pains up my spine, reminding me of how many home football games I sat through this season on hard metal bleachers. My ears started to burn as I recalled all the late calls on Friday nights to Aspen coach Travis Benson when the team was on the road.I politely said, “So what you’re saying, if I hear you correctly, is that the Times didn’t cover the football the team at all this fall?” “Yes,” she said. “The coverage was horrible. You didn’t cover the volleyball team either. And when there were stories, they always focused on the other team more.” This was followed by more shooting pains in the back (the bleachers in the gym for the volleyball games aren’t any softer) and my jaw clenching uncontrollably. I tried to remain calm.”Was this woman reading the wrong paper?” I thought to myself. “What about the two long features on the Aspen football team – one in the Aspen Times Weekly; the other on the front page of the Saturday paper before the Skiers’ rivalry game against Basalt? What about all the volleyball stories?”So, if I’m hearing you correctly, we didn’t cover the football team or the volleyball team?” I said courteously (eye twitching). “And when we did, we were biased toward the other team?””Yes,” she said.”Okaaaaaaaaay,” I said (neck burning).You can see how degrading this was. Eventually, I lost my fabricated empathy. I couldn’t help it. Knowing that either myself or sports reporter Jon Maletz had sat through every Aspen High home football game this fall, I couldn’t help but point out the inaccuracy of her complaints. There was also the concerted effort to have a reporter or photographer present at every home volleyball game for both local teams. This didn’t always happen, I said, but with only two sports writers and 12 high school teams, there was only so much that was physically possible. I also mentioned the preseason features that ran for nearly every single local high school team.In the end, none of this mattered. Other people felt the same way as she did, she said. She admitted she’d seen some of the stories. Still, she was convinced there was some bias toward the other teams and that the coverage had been slanted.I thanked her for the call and told her that as a sports department, we would try to do a better job in the future. I think I also mentioned she could write a letter to the editor if she was still upset. I didn’t even mention that other paper in town does not cover prep sports at all. After she hung up, I genuinely tried to empathize with this woman. As best as I could gather, she was a loving grandma who truly cared about her grandson on the football team.This made me think of my own grandparents and parents. I realized some of the people I loved most were entirely capable of a similar call. I once saw my sweet, well-mannered grandmother chew out of a woman three times her size in a parking lot after the woman nearly backed into one of her grandchildren. In fact, when I was playing football in high school, I’m pretty sure my mother called the local paper to complain about something (as to what she was upset about, I don’t know). I’m sure the local sports reporter at the paper probably thought my mom – MY MOM! – was a kook.I eventually calmed down. I started thinking clearly. I realized I had no one to blame but myself. As my first editor once said to me, “Ours is one of the few jobs where 10,000 people get to pick up your work every day and see if you screwed up. To do this job, you’ve got to have a thick skin.”And he’s right. As a reporter, you can’t let one nasty phone call allow you to think you’re doing a bad job. (Unless you’re Jayson Blair.)Which is why I’ll continue to try to be empathetic whenever an angry reader calls. It’s part of the gig.Besides, if I ever need any empathy, I know my own grandmothers are there to listen.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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