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Navigating working relationships: the importance of finding your special someone at work

When it’s good, work feels like play. When it’s not, well, it can feel more like a nightmare. We’re talking about the special relationships you cultivate with the people you work with. Radio producers and long-time collaborators Mira Burt-Wintonick and Cristal Duhaime share their tips.
Radio producers and long-time collaborators Cristal Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick. (Joe Rodgers)

When it's good, work feels like play. When it's not, well, it can feel more like a nightmare. 

We're talking about the special relationships you cultivate with the people you work with. It can be hard to create and maintain a good connection with colleagues. I mean, we're not always at our best at 9 a.m. on a Monday. But when you find your "special someone," work becomes a little less … work.

That's what happened for radio producers Mira Burt-Wintonick and Cristal Duhaime. These two gals created a close bond when they worked together producing CBC's WireTap. And their working relationship, and friendship, was pushed to a new level while producing the new CBC podcast, Love Me. Read on and learn their tips for cultivating a great relationship with the people you work with.

1. How long have you two been working together and where did it all start?

CD: Mira and I met at Concordia University where we were both studying in the Communications program. We had an especially engaging teacher in our first year who really opened up our minds to sound as a medium. Mira was always into radio documentary but I was more interested in doing experimental sound design for film. I remember when we would have class critiques of our work admiring Mira's pieces because they were always very "clean-sounding" while mine were always on the more muddy/chaotic side.
Mira and Cristal on the set of WireTap's How To Age Gracefully.
After university, I had grand ideas that I would become the next Walter Murch, but after working in television post-production for a few years cleaning up bad audio on reality TV shows, I quickly realized that sound in video/film was often just an afterthought and it would be a long time before I would get to do anything meaningful creatively. As luck would have it, Mira had been working on WireTap with Jonathan Goldstein and there was an opening for a part-time production assistant. She thought of me – I'm not sure why in retrospect, but the rest is history!
MBW: We started collaborating more in recent years, writing a few fictions together for WireTap, and now diving into our own show together. People make fun of us at work because we always bring lunch for each other, but it's just better that way! Half the cooking!

2. What's the value of finding a "special someone" to work with?

MBW: It's important to have someone to bounce ideas off of and to just keep you sane, keep you on the right track. When editing a podcast, you end up spending a lot of time in a little mixing bubble, cut off from the world, so it's great to have someone in that bubble with you. Plus, it's like having two brains instead of one so you're immediately increasing the number of ideas you'll come up with for a piece, or the number of solutions you'll come up with when something goes wrong.
CD:​ I think it's important when working with someone so intensely that you get along not only in a work sense but also on a personal level as you're basically hanging out with them all day everyday — which is more time than most people spend with their own family. So I feel lucky that Mira and I are also great friends. I think it's also essential when creating something together that there be a balance in tastes/styles to prevent anything from getting too stale. Our tastes and sensibilities are very similar when it comes to the big stuff and I think in order to create a unified vision for a show, that's crucial. But we're also drawn to different things in the smaller details which I think helps make our work more dynamic.

3. How has Mira/Cristal changed your work for the better?

CD: Mira is an exceptional story editor. She's able to hold the whole story together in her mind and think of how each piece can shift around and work to serve the story as a whole. She's really able to find the focus right away and figure out what it needs to work. Whereas I'm always struggling to read my messy listening notes and can't seem to remember what a character said two seconds before ... so definitely our story arcs are a lot tighter and just generally more effective than they would be if I was producing them on my own.
MBW: When we write a fiction together, we'll usually work in a Google doc online and just email it to each other back and forth, adding in ideas and notes. The best feeling is when Cristal will send the document back to me and she's added stuff in that will literally make me laugh out loud. And she's a great sound designer. We generally share tasks and each do a bit of everything, including mixing, so having us each tackle different pieces within an episode gives our work a broader range than if it was just one of us doing everything.

4. Tell us a story of when you ran into conflict working together, and how did you get out of it?

CD: Surprisingly, we haven't gotten into a whole lot of arguments throughout this project! But of course, creative conflicts do happen every so often and learning how to better navigate them has been a fantastic learning experience. Oftentimes it's a matter of letting things go and picking your battles. If there is a creative choice that I feel strongly about I'll fight for it (we usually both present our best cases for any contentious ideas as though like lawyers!) but sometimes I just defer to Mira's judgment because some things she just sees clearer than I do.

During times of creative tension I always try to ask myself whether what I'm saying is coming from a place of ego or whether I feel my idea will actually serve the story better. It's tricky territory though – I feel like when working in any creative field that hurt feelings are often part of the mix as the ideas just feel more personal somehow. On the rare occasions where things have boiled over between us, we end up having to talk it out and come out of it on the other end all the better for having gone through the conflict – as in any relationship perhaps!

MBW: We have similar sensibilities in many ways but we also have very different ideas sometimes, and that can definitely cause tension. We'll argue over tiny details, like where a song should come in or what specific word should be used in a particular sentence. This kind of work is so intimate and you feel so invested in the stories you create that it's hard to not take things personally when your partner disagrees with you or challenges you.

But it's good to be confronted by someone who thinks very differently than you. Even if you aren't on the same page in that moment, it forces you to re-evaluate your own assumptions and ideas and preferences and ultimately those disagreements make the work better, because you're not allowing yourself to be lazy and go with your first instinct. You're always questioning everything and making sure that each decision is arrived at for a deliberate and valid reason.

5. Now lets try and understand a very different work relationship — that connection with your interviewees. What are some important things to remember when setting up a positive working relationship with the people in your stories?

CD: I like to think I'm a good listener and so I think that's important it get across to interviewees, that you're not just fishing for sound bites. I think it also important they get a sense of who you are so that they feel okay about relating to you as a human being and feel like you're not going to exploit them.

We also come from a non-journalistic background so we tend to be a little looser in our interview styles – in the context of our show, story is what's most important as opposed to recounting every little aspect in exact detail. So we like to let our interview subjects know before we dive in why we might be asking them to restate things in a certain way, or if that they ever feel uncomfortable with anything, they should let us know.

MBW: The stories on Love Me are hyper-personal and the people sharing the stories were all so, so generous in allowing us into these very intimate aspects of their lives. They made themselves vulnerable to us, so there's a huge responsibility to not take advantage of that, and to craft their story in a respectful way.

But of course we are crafting stories. This isn't an oral history project, it's art. So you're always having to find a balance between what's best for the story/the listener and what's best for the subject. You never want to cross the line and do something that would unfairly represent the subject, of course, and luckily we didn't encounter anything that challenged us too seriously in that sense. But it's always a delicate balance.

The word 'love' doesn't always capture exactly how we feel about someone. These 13 foreign languages explore the unique - and often untranslatable - ways of of describing the journey of falling in and out of love. 3:44

You might feel guilty cutting out a detail of a story that is very meaningful to the person telling it but that for whatever reason doesn't resonate or is confusing or requires too much context and explaining and breaks the flow of the piece. Ultimately, our job is to tell a compelling story and as long as we're aware of our responsibility and are doing our best to create empathy between our listeners and our subjects then we're on the right track.

6. Your whole show is about a very intimate subject matter; love. How do you get people to open up and be honest?

CD: Interviewing people about such personal subjects is new territory for me – I was really fearful at first but I really enjoyed it in the end! I was honestly very surprised how much people were willing to share – in a few instances they talked about some pretty painful experiences and it made me feel very protective of them. I was very mindful about how we'd treat their stories. It's a big responsibility.…

On a lighter note, one of our interviewees told me after I interviewed him that it had felt like therapy! It's funny but I see how it could be true. Ultimately, people want to feel listened to and have someone bear witness to their experiences. Again, I think it's important you set up a level of comfort with subjects right away and if possible, share something about yourself, too. We cut ourselves out of the interviews so you won't hear any of that, but I think it goes a long way in showing that you're not just some creep with a microphone!

MBW: It's surprisingly easy! People love talking about their personal lives. I think most people are just dying to spill their most vulnerable secrets out as a way to feel less alone, and really they're just waiting for someone to ask them about it, for someone to listen. And of course sharing your own experiences helps, too. Meeting them halfway.

7. Who or what is the greatest love of your life?

CD: [At the risk of sounding like a Carrie Bradshaw] I'd probably have to say that Montreal is the greatest love of my life. I moved here back when I was 18 and it's still thrilling to me, warts and all. There's such an artistic spirit and rawness here that I think can only be the result of a particular mix of factors – the cheap rent and linguistic diversity being but two of them. It's the perfect place for anyone who wants to make things. And who doesn't love bagels and a good French swear?
MBW: Oh gosh. Sleep? I love sleep. Or maybe I just really need a nap right now. We produced our entire season in one big batch and we are definitely feeling a little exhausted. So excited to finally be getting these episodes out there, though! (Did I successfully evade the question?)

Listen to stories from the new podcast, Love Me 

I say love, you say what? Dreamy, excruciating, essential, wildly confusing? Being in love can feel like wandering through a dense and mysterious forest. Well, a new CBC podcast is venturing into the wild world of love. It's called,­ Love Me. 27:30

For more from Love Me and to subscribe to the podcast, please visit the website.

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