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

Interviewing the Willing: Tactics

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
The Great WallWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: I
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.
A 155 mm artillery shell is visible as it exits the barrel of an M-198 howitzer during trainingWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: II
Sometimes, when we ask questions, we're more interested in eliciting behavior from the person questioned, rather than answers. Here's Part II of a set of techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeListening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum?
A lightning storm over New York CityComfort Zone Discomfort
The phrase "comfort zone" is a metaphor that can distort how we think about situations in which we feel comfortable and confident. Here are four examples illustrating how the metaphor distorts our thinking.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The 20-70-10 rule, graphicallyComing October 16: Performance Mismanagement Systems: II
One of the more counter-effective strategies incorporated into performance management systems is the enterprise-wide uniform quota, known as a vitality curve. Its fundamental injustice breeds cynicism, performance fraud, and toxic conflict. It produces performance assessments that are unrelated to enterprise objectives. Available here and by RSS on October 16.
An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904And on October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

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

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. 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 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.