I spend most of my time these days coaching senior leaders and product teams on how to build empathy for their customers and colleagues. This is what my consulting business has evolved into over time.
One of the tools we use are one-on-one interviews with stakeholders and customers. The goal is to discover the behaviors, attitudes, motivations and frustrations of both internal and external constituents, the people we serve. By making a concerted effort to listen, we come to a better understanding of who they are, what they need, and what problems we’re in a position to solve.
In the past I’ve shared my tips on conducting interviews, focusing on how to plan, how to prep, and how to run effective sessions. But I’ve come to realize that getting the best intel out of a session depends less on how the interviewer conducts the interview and more on how the interviewer conducts themselves.
When it comes to learning about other people, we tend to get in our own way. Our demeanor, our assumptions, and our conversation style all impact what is shared by the other person and how we hear it. That means we have the power to make the conversation more meaningful, more relevant, and more transformative for the both of us just by changing our manner.
I believe the job of an interviewer is to hear what other people don’t hear, to see what other people don’t see. And that requires a tremendous amount of openness, discipline, and patience. How the interviewer behaves must be purposeful and thoughtful, designed to put the interviewee at ease and create an environment in which the deepest connection can be made.
Doing this can be learned, but it takes time and repeated training. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to change everything about your approach all at once. Instead choose a few things you want to work on and make a point to be conscious of implementing them in your next interview session.
I have a set of principles for how to conduct myself while conducting interviews. They’re always in the back of my mind and I’m always striving to live up to them. There are times I fail to pull them off. Ego or stress or doubt gets in the way. But I make a note of it and move on, vowing to do better next time.
- Ask one question at a time
- Don’t offer answers
- Let them finish their thought
- Acknowledge that you’re listening
- Follow up
- Listen for what isn’t being said
- Keep your inner monologue on the inside
- Ask about their experience, not another’s
- Watch your posture
- Dress respectfully
I hope you’ll join me in using these principles as a guide when conducting your own interviews. If you have a set of interviewing principles based on your own experiences, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Ask one question at a time
We go into an interview knowing nothing and hoping to know everything when we come out the other side. As a result, it’s easy to ask a whole bunch of questions all at once. By the time we’ve finished our line of questioning, the interviewee can’t even remember the first thing we asked. Either they answer only the last question we asked or the one they remember best, leaving a whole bunch of questions unanswered.
Instead, use self-restraint to ask just one question at a time. As soon as you hear the question mark leave your mouth, close it. Let them fully respond before you ask the next question. This will allow you to control the rhythm of the conversation and create a much more fluid back-and-forth. Challenge yourself to never speak for more than 10 seconds at a time. The best questions shouldn’t take more than 5 seconds to ask.
Don’t offer answers
Chances are I’m interviewing someone who doesn’t get interviewed very often, and certainly not about this particular subject matter. So when I ask my question, the interviewee might have to think for a moment before they respond.
This isn’t a multiple choice quiz: “When do you watch TV most often? On weekends? Before bed?” Now the interviewee is left choosing between which one of my answers they do more, “Oh definitely on weekends,” when if allowed to answer the question on their own they may have responded more truthfully, “When the kids get home from school.”
When we offer answers, we suppress the answer the interviewee would have provided naturally. We might not realize it, but we’re providing them with the answers we deem as appropriate. Now due to social norms, the interviewee has gotten the message that those are the responses we’re looking for; they’ll subconsciously choose one rather than giving us the truth.
Let them finish their thought
The worst thing an interviewer can do to an interviewee is to interrupt them. Cutting someone off tells them that what they’re saying is less important than what we’re about to say. It tells them that the answer they’re giving us isn’t useful. It tells them we’ve already moved on.
Now we’ll never know if what they were about to say could’ve been our golden nugget — transforming the conversation, our research, and the resulting end-product. We’ll also probably find that all of their subsequent answers will be shorter and less emphatic. We stopped them, and that stings no matter what the situation is.
I’ve been guilty of it many times, and I regret as soon as I catch myself doing it. Now I make sure to let the interviewee fully articulate their thought and give them a full pause afterwards to ensure they’re finished. If while they’re talking I think of something great to ask, I quickly jot it down and keep listening. Then I can refer back to it when the time is appropriate.
Acknowledge that you’re listening
Look them in the eyes. Nod. Smile. Raise your eyebrows. Tilt your head. Lean in.
When we’re gazing off into the distance, staring at our notebooks, or looking at another person in the room, the person who’s talking just might get the impression that we aren’t listening. And if we aren’t listening, why are they wasting their time?
I use non-verbal cues to show people that I’m engaged and focused. I don’t want my words to interrupt theirs, so I keep verbal acknowledgements to a minimum until they’re finished: “Interesting.” “Cool.” “Oh wow.” They want to go on.
When I’m conducting the interview, I have someone else taking notes so that I’m free to participate in the conversation fluidly. I am present. There is no doubt in the interviewee’s mind that I am listening to every word they say because I am and I’m showing it.
The best interviews are conversations — where the interviewee does most of the talking but doesn’t feel like they’re being grilled. Asking a question, getting an answer, and then moving on to the next question on our list does not make for a very pleasant and open conversation.
If I’ve done a good job of memorizing my questions ahead of time, I’ll have an easier time staying in the moment and asking questions when they naturally arise. My next question always follows their last answer. “OK” is never an appropriate response.
Ask why. Ask how. Ask when. Never assume we understand their context, environment, belief system, social circle, lifestyle, ambitions, stressors. Go deeper. Ask the probing questions. Ask them something they’ve never been asked before, something no one else would think to ask.
But don’t ask it out of left field. It has to relate to what they just said or else we may make them feel we’re just checking off a checklist.
Listen for what isn’t being said
The words coming out of someone’s mouth is only half the story. Their body language and tone tells us more about their mood, insecurities and desires than their words ever could.
As an interviewer, not only do I have to listen, but I have to read. I have to read what people are trying to say, but can’t. Maybe someone else is in the room preventing them to speak freely. Maybe they’re afraid of being judged. Maybe they’re afraid of being insubordinate. Maybe they’ve just never really thought about it before. I regularly interview people who were experiencing all of these things and more — and it’s my job to see through it.
When I think I’ve gotten a read of the situation, I ask the necessary questions to confirm it. Depending on the flow of the conversation and the rapport that I’ve built, I ask directly or indirectly. Either way I tread lightly, and always demonstrate compassion. I am a vault. They can tell me anything and everything, and they’re helping both of us by doing so.
Keep your inner monologue on the inside
Building a rapport takes practice, and the more we do it, the better we become at doing it quickly. And guess what the number one requirement is for building rapport: empathy.
No matter what an interviewee tells me during a session, I do not judge them. Okay, maybe a little judgment seeps through, but I never let it show. If I find something odd, off-putting or just plain boring, I make a note of it and keep listening. I don’t have to want to be their friend in order to get every ounce of value out of the conversation.
When I hear my inner critic, I do my damnedest to find out what makes them tick. Their particular behaviors and attitudes might not be things we as a team choose to encourage, but that doesn’t matter in the context of the interview. We are there to understand, expand our horizons and challenge our assumptions.
Ask about their experience, not another’s
I’ve watched many interviews devolve into mind-reading exercises when the interviewer becomes so curious about what the interviewee’s spouse/friend/colleague is doing/thinking/feeling that they take time away from getting to know the person sitting right in front of them.
Yes, sometimes we learn early into an interview that the person we really need to be interviewing is someone else — and at the end of the interview, we can politely ask for an introduction. But we’re here now, and we need to make the most of the opportunity while we have it. Who knows what we may uncover about the dynamics of the relationship or latent needs not yet being fulfilled.
“When does so-and-so give you the files?” Fair game. “Why does so-and-so wait to give you the files?” No way. They can only speculate, and then their assumptions will become ours, all the harder to eliminate later.
Watch your posture
After a full day of back-to-back interviews, I’m thirsty, I’m tired, I’m worried about traffic, and I’m thinking about what’s for dinner. When this happens, I find myself slowly sliding down in my chair, crossing my arms, and turning away from the interviewee. And I hate myself for it every time.
This person took the time out of their busy day to spend it with us. To answer our questions. To inform our research. To make us better. And our body language says everything about how much we appreciate them.
Bad posture leads to worse intel, I guarantee it. When we sit up straight, have our head up, point our belly button toward theirs, and have our arms uncrossed, we indicate that we are open, ready and present. We exude confidence and authority. Yes, I am the right person to hear your grievances. Yes, I am capable of communicating your needs to my team. Yes, you are making good use of your time. Thank you.
This works when you’re on the phone as well as it does in person. Our posture affects our tone of voice and our attentiveness, and that can be heard no matter how far away.
Working in technology often means that we dress a lot more casually at work than people in other sectors. Jeans, t-shirts, sandals may be the norm in your office, and people who dress up may be seen as out of place. As an independent consultant, it’s a miracle if I get out of my pajamas before noon.
But anytime I’m conducting an interview, I dress like I’m the one being interviewed. Slacks, button down shirt, blazer. A belted sweater dress, a sheath dress. Nice shoes. Muted colors. Unadorned. Neat.
We never know what situation we’re walking into: their style of dress or dress code, their personal values or company culture. It’s always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed, as we can always act more informally if the situation calls for it. It’s a lot harder to act more formally when you’re wearing a graphic tee.
Showing respect goes a long way to finding the buried treasure we came for. How we’re dressed, how we carry ourselves, how we ask questions, how we listen — it all plays a role in demonstrating how much we care. If they don’t think we care, neither will they. And what a loss it will be for both of us.
- My Best Advice for Conducting User Interviews July 7, 2010 | 39 comments
- How “When I…” Reasoning Poisons a Team August 16, 2012 | 9 comments
- War Stories: Stories of War March 19, 2013 | 3 comments
- What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects October 18, 2012 | 45 comments
- User Research War Stories: “Taking empathy to a whole new level” August 3, 2012 | 4 comments