Interviewing the Willing: Tactics
by Rick Brenner
When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
We sometimes interview each other, formally or informally. We might ask: "What should I do to reproduce that failure?" or "What features would you like the new version to have?" Too often we come away from these interviews with an inaccurate view of what our sources know.
Even willing sources might not know that something they know is useful. Or they might not know that they know something, or that they have a strong preference or aversion. Overcoming this hurdle of unawareness without knowing for certain whether or not it exists is the key to success.
Thinking of the interviewee as a committee can be helpful. Think of your source as several people, in a meeting, with only one person speaking at a time. Your task is to speak to the part of the person (the committee member) that has the information you seek. Here are some tactics for interviewing the willing.
Your task is to speak
to the part of your
source that has the
information you seek
- Use a clock pad
- Managing your time is important, but glancing at the clock or your watch can remind the source's "inner manager" of other more pressing matters. If you have a pad notebook with a built-in clock, you can check the time unobtrusively.
- Ask simple questions
- Remember, before you hear the answer to a question, the source's "committee" has to understand it. If your question is complex, your source might not understand it, and then he or she might not answer the question you asked.
- Use their terminology
- Use the terminology and slang of the person you're interviewing. Meet them where they are.
- Listen carefully
- Avoid completing sentences for the source, or filling in a word when the source is struggling to find one, or asking another question when the source pauses for "too long." Let the source fill the spaces.
- On short or slow answers, follow up
- When the source supplies a response that's much shorter than most other responses, or when a response contains atypically little content, it's possible that you've touched on something that the "committee" doesn't want to speak about. Follow up.
- Use the hypothetical
- If the source seems blocked by something, ask a hypothetical: "If you did know what was best, what would it look like?"
- Seek clarification
- Use "starters" such as "By that you mean…" or "Say more about that." Encourage the source to ramble on a bit without specific guidance. Because clarifications give other "committee" members a chance to speak up, they frequently elicit information that was outside the source's awareness.
- Try to get corrected
- If you have a guess about something, and open questions haven't worked, try making a statement that you know is incomplete or incorrect in some way. The committee member who knows better might then seize the floor and blurt out a correction.
Perhaps you're wondering if I have more information about this topic. If I did, what would you ask me? Top Next Issue
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as or as . You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- Selling Uphill: The Pitch
- Whether you're a CEO or a project champion, you occasionally have to persuade decision-makers who have some kind of power over you. What do they look for? What are the key elements of an effective pitch? What does it take to Persuade Power?
- See No Evil
- When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance. And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
- Mastering Q and A
- The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
- Social Transactions: We're Doing It My Way
- We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors, and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do we decide whose preferences rule?
See also Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact me for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: