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? First in this series 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 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: II
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection.
Here are some of them.
- Troublesome Terminology
- The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the
most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
- What We Don't Know About Each Other
- We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't
know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
- Avoiding Speed Bumps: I
- Many of the difficulties we encounter while working together have few long-term effects. They just cause
delays, confusion, and frustration. Eventually we sort things out, but there is a better way: avoid
the speed bumps.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info