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.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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