As I write in my free ebook, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can download here, emotional intelligence is the single thing readers tell me they’d like to work on most this year. And Winfrey, who has literally done thousands of these kinds of interviews, taught a masterclass.
Regardless of how you came away feeling about Meghan and Harry and the royal family, or if you care at all for that matter, here’s part of why it worked–and why Winfrey’s stellar performance is worth learning from.
1. She laid the groundwork.
We need to start with how the interview came about to begin with. The chronology isn’t 100 percent clear, but what is clear is that Winfrey put in the time and leveraged relationships to make it happen.
The New York Times suggests her first contact with Meghan might have been as recently as February or March 2018. After a meeting in London, and then, after Winfrey quickly invited Meghan’s mother to her house in California, they formed a relationship.
“Approximately two months of acquaintance was enough to earn Oprah an invitation to Meghan and Harry’s wedding” that May, according to the Times.
Beyond those three years of history, a new detail emerged during the interview last night, which is that Harry and Meghan have been staying in a California home owned by Tyler Perry, who has also been paying for their security.
Perry and Winfrey have had a long relationship and friendship. Here’s a 10-page interview Winfrey did with him at least a decade ago, for example — and they’ve had a big, successful professional partnership, too.
I suspect more details will emerge, but the point is that Winfrey built these relationships long before trying to close the big interview — long before Meghan and Harry even left the United Kingdom, for that matter.
Emotionally intelligent people understand that sometimes you have to put in the work like that for a quite a while to make the other people in any deal feel comfortable.
2. She interviewed them separately.
Let’s talk about the structure. I don’t know whose idea it was for Winfrey to interview Meghan for an hour first, and then interview both Meghan and Harry together for another idea.
But it was brilliant to do it this way, especially if she thought that Meghan would be the more forthcoming, talkative, and engaging of the two.
During that first hour, both practically and thematically, all of the attention was on Meghan. I know that there were other people there — camera operators, technicians. Even Prince Harry was either on set or watching nearby.
But emotionally intelligent people know that when you make an effort to focus your undivided attention on someone, it prompts them to react in turn. They perceive:
- “I’m important to this person.”
- “This person really wants to know what I have to say.”
- Maybe even: “I have freedom to say what I truly think and believe.”
Granted, this conversation was in the context of an interview that CBS and overseas outlets reportedly paid close to $10 million to air. Still, these are subtle, subliminal messages, and they can fill gaps and improve conversations.
For example, this arrangement meant that Winfrey was able to get Meghan’s odd story of meeting the queen for the first time, along with:
- details about her relationships with other royals,
- her frank discussion of the toll that was taken on her mental health, and
- her bombshell revelation that there had been “conversations about how dark [their son, Archie’s] skin might be when he’s born,” all before bringing Harry into the discussion.
Sometimes, you can get those kinds of personal, key details only in a one-on-one discussion. Frankly, it works the same for a television interview as it can for a sales call.
3. She supported, rather than shifted.
Among Winfrey’s thousands of interviews are some truly iconic ones: There’s Michael Jackson in 1993 (his first in more than a decade at the time), Tom Cruise in 2005 (the one where he jumped on the couch), and Whitney Houston in 2009.
There’s also one that seems very relevant–but that Winfrey apparently knew, at least in the two hours that aired last night, not to lean on: her interview with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York in 1996.
I went back and watched some parts of that interview before writing this article. Ferguson talked 25 years ago about many of the exact same themes that Meghan did in last night’s interview.
But here’s the key: Instead of drawing parallels with that interview, or suggesting answers (even well-intentioned) as a result of her previous experiences with the royal family, Winfrey kept it all to herself. She asked questions that kept the focused 100 percent on Meghan’s experience, and then Harry’s as well.
She exercised this same kind of restraint in other areas, too — for example, the issue of physical security turned out to be quite relevant; Winfrey certainly understands what it’s like to be a famous person who needs to deal with that.
And there were issues of race that came up. But while people with less emotional intelligence sometimes try to describe their own versions of other people’s experiences in conversations, in an attempt to develop rapport, it’s not really effective.
Instead, Winfrey knew to support the conversation, rather than shift it — choosing language and crafting interactions to keep the focus on the other person.
All the other techniques
There were other factors, too. Based on how some of the taped interview was edited, it seems Winfrey likely leveraged the power of patience and silence during parts of the discussion, but since the interview had to be cut for length, those moments of silence were probably among the first to go.
And, she also used the idea of suggesting answers sparingly. She also pushed and asked probing questions, but pulled back when it was clear she wasn’t going to get much more. The key example was when she asked Harry who raised the questions about “how dark” their children would be, and he said he didn’t want to identify the person.
All in all, however, this was Winfrey, in her element, and demonstrating some truly powerful interviewing techniques that are part of why she’s been so successful for decades. I think emotional intelligence is a big part of it, and that even if you don’t have much interest in the royals, it was well worth the time to learn some interesting lessons.
(Quick reminder: the free book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021.)