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?"
"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?
of the willing
effective strategyEffective 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.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
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- Getting Into the Conversation
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- Reframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
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can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little
skill and discipline, but it can work.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of
the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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