Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 9;   March 1, 2006: Interviewing the Willing: Strategy

Interviewing the Willing: Strategy

by

At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing more effectively?

Josie stopped short, because she had just learned something that might break the impasse. She turned to Greg. "Wait a minute," she said. "Are you saying that you never use this system to review dormant accounts?"

Greg looked surprised. "Right," he began. "But I told you that two weeks ago in my office. What's the problem?"

In the conference room"I don't remember it that way," Josie explained. "But it means that we can eliminate about 20% of the work."

Josie and Greg might never figure out how they got confused, but one partial cause might be related to Josie's approach to interviewing, and Greg's approach to being interviewed.

Sometimes we interview others to elicit critical information — to resolve an ambiguity, to solve a problem, to create a design or to develop requirements. Most sources are willing, even eager to help. Yet we often come away from the effort with incomplete or wrong information. What can we do to make this kind of interview more effective?

Effective interviews
of the willing
start with
effective strategy
Effective interviews of the willing start with effective strategy. Here are some general principles that help.

Prepare yourself
Know what you want to uncover, and have a plan that will get there. Unless you're an expert, improvisational interviewing is unlikely to produce the results you seek.
Eliminate presuppositions
Presuppositions constrain responses. Contrast "How often do you use the system for viewing dormant accounts?" with "Do you use the system for viewing dormant accounts?" The former question presupposes the use. With the presupposition, responders who don't actually view dormant accounts might feel a "should" in the question.
Use context-free questions
A context-free question neither suggests its answer, nor biases the responder. For instance, "What's the customer's frame of mind?" is free of context. "Is the customer under time pressure?" is not.
Ration your questions
Even a willing source becomes less willing as the questions keep coming. Quotas vary from person to person, and some questions "expire" — they drop out of the quota — after varying amounts of time and intervening interactions.
Beware repetition
Asking about the same thing repeatedly, even when the questions aren't successive, can cause some sources to feel that they're under suspicion. They might become wary and guarded.
Plan for post-interview analysis
Review your results after each interview. Don't assume that you understood everything you heard the first time, or that you asked unambiguous questions.
Exploit synergy and follow up
Compare results from multiple sources, looking for discrepancies, re-enforcements and synergies. Look for what was not said by each responder. This process often generates a need to follow up for clarification.

Strategy is only one key to conducting a successful interview. Tactics are just as important, and they're the topic for next time. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Interviewing the Willing: Tactics  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe 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 an individual or as an organization. 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? rbrennnEZyBOXFNRjWIjWner@ChacKwNPEFlwqDNcOMqxoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

A rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park, United StatesLet Me Finish, Please
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Shaking an orange treeWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
Carl Philipp Gottfried von ClausewitzLong-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
A foxhunt in VirginiaExasperation Generators: Opaque Metaphors
Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?

See also Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenAzQLvSwcZGIFbGjDner@ChacPjGFDZhTjrJrWyNLoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.