How to be seen and heard

Much to my surprise, I discover that I am not quite finished with the movie, The Intern. In my earlier post [“The Intern as a Theological Prop,” on March 11] I considered the whole plot and let my theological sensitivities guide me. I thought that would be enough, but it turns out that some other things mattered to me too.  Much smaller things.

I debated for a little while over whether to use “heard” or “seen” as the master metaphor. I reflected on my own experiences, of which two kinds are relevant, and decided that my legislative experience favors “heard,” whereas my recent dating experience favors “seen.”  So I used them both.

The two modes are alike in the sense that the person or the group to whom you are directing a communication is entirely unlikely to pay attention at all. You will be a part of the white noise in the legislative setting and part of the parade of possibilities in the dating setting. Neither of those was what I wanted, so I devised techniques to get around them.

Difficulties 1 and 2

There are two difficulties in these settings. The first is that there are things you are expected to say. When I was giving testimony before legislative committees, I represented a state agency and I had a position to describe and they already knew what it was. [1] They had no reason at all to pay attention to what I actually said.

Furthermore, you have a chance to say something that will help you make your case, something not in the written testimony, IF you can get their attention. Something needs to bring them out of routine listening and into active listening. That means you have to say something they didn’t expect you to say.

Then, while they were coming slowly back to focus, as a result of the discrepancy they had heard, I would say the one thing I wanted them to hear. Ordinarily, you can’t make them vote the way you want, but if you are careful, you can get them to hear what you want them to hear. [2]

intern 5The online dating setting is the same problem in a way. There are things you are expected to say. If you say only those things, they (potential dates) don’t hear you at all. But the issue in dating is not really that you want them to “hear” you. It is that you want them to “see” you; you want them to see who you are. So I learned that if you want them to see you—or, indeed, to see anything—you need to surprise them a little. Everyone on an online dating site wants to have “adventures,” for instance. So if you say you don’t like to “have adventures,” you have created an opportunity for yourself. And even if you follow that up with “…instead, I like to CHOOSE adventures,” you are likely to have revealed something about yourself. [3]

The second difficulty is that you need to establish that you and they (in the committee testimony setting) and you and she (in the online dating setting) are really trying to do the same thing. You are not opponents; we are colleagues, at least for the moment. People like that. “My interest v. your interests” is inherently divisive. “Let’s see if we can get this done together” is inherently collaborative.

OK, so that’s what I know about being seen and heard.

Now let’s look at the way these issues show up in The Intern. Jules Ostin,(Anne Hathaway) the founder and CEO of a very young startup company in Brooklyn has been assigned a “senior intern.” She doesn’t want the program, but apparently she agreed to it, so she is stuck with it. She doesn’t want to have one of these interns assigned to her in particular because “she doesn’t get along with old people.” Ben Whittaker (Robert DeNiro) is 70, so she is expecting to interview him and dismiss him.

intern 3That doesn’t happen because Ben makes common cause with her immediately and he also causes Jules to see him. In the movie, we see her do that. She says what she wants to say and then looks back down at her laptop. Then she hears what he actually said and looks back up again.   Can you see that her face and her eyes are not oriented in the same way?  That’s why.

That doesn’t happen because Whittaker is really good at being seen and being heard. There are four moments in this very brief interview. Two of them deal with what I called Difficulty 2: you have to establish a useful commonality. In the other two, (Difficulty 1), he says something that pierces her routine disregard of him and causes her to look up and actually see him.

I wish I could sit down with you and play this scene half a dozen times. That’s what did it for me. But…hey…this is a blog. We’ll have to make do.


Ben knocks at Jules’ office door to begin an interview he knows cannot take more than four minutes. “I’m Ben,” he says, “your new intern” and he says it with an ironic smile. Jules reads the smile. “I’m glad that you also see the humor in the situation,” says Jules. “It would be hard not to,” says Ben.

Since it is just barely possible that you will see this exchange differently, let me say what I see. Ben matches Jules’ irony. “Both of us,” Ben is saying, “see this situation from the outside; we both see the unusual character it has; we both see the potential for humor.”

The second one comes at the end of the interview. Jules says the last thing she has to say and then looks down at her laptop and continues typing. Ben says, “Well, I think we managed that in less than two minutes.” There is no notice—and I mean not even so much as a lingering glance— that an “interview” with a new intern that could not possibly last more than four minutes, is a little odd. Then there is the “we” in “we managed.” Not so much as a nod to “Thanks for giving me two minutes of your valuable time;” nothing like apologizing for intruding. We succeeded. Good for us.


As I said in reviewing my legislative and dating experiences, you have to give them something they aren’t expecting if you hope to be seen at all.

“Could I just be honest?” Jules says, “I’m not going to have a lot for you to do. If you ask me, it would make more sense for you to be in creative or marketing. It’s a little slower and it’s not so technical and if you want a transfer, we can make that happen. And if you want to know the truth, I’m not so easy to work for.”

Jules has offered Ben an easy out. “I’m old and this is technical and I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up.” He doesn’t take the easy out. And Jules offers Ben a handhold by giving him an additional reason to transfer: “I’m not so easy to work for.

intern 4Ben jumps right on that one. “So I gather,” he says, “but I can get along with anyone.” As viewers, we remember the response of the other interns to the news. That’s how Ben knows Jules is hard to work for. He recognizes that directly and she reacts like someone just ripped a bandage off her arm. It isn’t pleasant, but when it is done, it is done and it’s all better. Besides, Ben says, “I’m here to learn about your world.”

When Ben leaves, he asks, “Do you want the door open or closed?” She doesn’t know until Ben starts to close the door and then she says, “Open…actually.” And then, dismissing him, “You’ll get used to me.” And then she looks back down at her computer. But she doesn’t yet know who she is dealing with.

Ben answers, “I’m looking forward to it.” That’s a lot more than Jules had in mind in her remark. She has already returned her gaze to the laptop, but when she hears that, she looks up again. The very beginnings of “Who IS this guy?” are beginning to form in her mind.

I don’t know what this very small, very tightly choreographed scene will mean to you but I can hardly get enough of it. Ben Whittaker is very nearly perfect in this scene. He makes something out of less than nothing. And since I have had to try that myself, I know a master when I see one.

Way to go, Ben.

[1] Plus, in the legislative setting, they also have your written testimony before them and they don’t want you to read it. They want you to summarize it. Concisely.
[2] Please note that “saying it in their presence” is not at all the same as their hearing it.
[3] It is true that you might only have revealed that you like to play with words and manage expectations, but a woman who was intrigued by that might be just the woman you were wanting to meet.
[4] It is supposed to take less than two minutes in the movie. It actually takes about three and a half.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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