Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 10;   March 8, 2006:

Interviewing the Willing: Tactics

by

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.

In the conference roomEven 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Problem-Solving Ambassadors  Next Issue

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