We all think we know how to carry on our side of a two-way business conversation, but we can get much fuller and more accurate information if we pay careful attention to strategies of effective interviewing.
The executives engaged in the normal conduct of business devotes much of their time to interviewing. However, there is an appalling lack of effort given to systematic attempts at building improvements into this age-old process. Interviewing seems apparent that a modest effort aimed at an analysis of our interviewing techniques would yield generous returns.
In the broad sense, interviewing is the process whereby individuals (usually two) exchange information. The individuals may be concerned with a job opening, a promotion, a special assignment, a product sale, information for intelligence purposes, or other issues. The information exchanged need not be limited to facts. In business, such products of an interview as meaning and understanding are often more significant than objective factual statements.
Interviewing in the contemporary business setting invariably takes place in an atmosphere filled with a sense of urgency. The time allocated to the interview is necessarily limited. Consequently, a non-directive approach finds little application; it is necessary to use the guided interview in the vast majority of situations. This inherent time constraint sometimes brings about dysfunctional consequences: The interviewer is so preoccupied with budgeting their time that the content and the purpose of the interview are vitiated. Hence, we must define what we mean by an effective interview. An effective interview optimizes the perceived communication objectives of the individuals involved, with time as the principal constraint. We shall focus on research findings concerning:
- The proper kind of preparation for the interview
- The value of such procedures as having an outline of points to be covered and taking notes
- The use of questions and questioning techniques
- The kind and amount of control that the interviewer should exercise over the discussion
- The analysis and evaluation of the information obtained
Planning and Preparation
The lack of adequate planning for an interview is the greatest single fault found in the studies of the interviewing process. All too often, the inexperienced interviewer launches into a discussion only to find midway through that their preparation is incomplete. A moderate amount of preplanning can easily obviate such unfortunate occurrences.
When the objective of the interview is well known in advance, it is usually a good practice to allow the individual concerned ample time to prepare for the talk before the actual involvement. By indicating, ahead of time and in writing, the points to be covered, the interviewer gives the interviewee an added advantage and reinforces the specific purpose of the session. Too often the expectations of the interviewee may be far different from those of the interviewer. This misunderstanding, if not corrected, can be disastrous.
On the other hand, too much preplanning and detailing for an interview can be equally harmful. The interviewee may then develop conventionally correct answers or platitudes that, of course, reduce the informational content of the interview to virtually zero. In short, they need a guide, a “steer”—but no more than that.
A written outline of important points to be covered is not necessarily an indication of rigidity; rather, it reflects consideration for all parties concerned. When explained, it generates a feeling of confidence as well as fairness—particularly if two or more people are to be ranked in an evaluation. The outline may even include typical questions in order to solicit comparable responses. Again, however, a warning against excess is needed: Too much reliance on a programmed questioning approach is often disconcerting to the interviewee and may lead to stereotyped answers. Ideally, of course, each question should be designed for the situation and the respondent.
In presenting information, a speaker allocates blocks of time to various items on their agenda. If no time limit is established, the presentation can continue indefinitely. Even worse, the truly important information may never be told. This process takes place by dint of the normal human trait of retaining the most significant bits of information for the end. Psychiatrists recognize this and are particularly attentive in the last 10 minutes of the therapy session. Borrowing from this insight, the interviewer, although not able to set an hourly cycle as does the psychiatrist, should try discreetly to indicate a time scale. This allows the interviewee to plan and to include relevant information that otherwise might be withheld. If the interview is terminated too abruptly, the probability of losing valuable information is very high.
Guiding the conversation
The interviewee is overly sensitive to all reactions by the interviewer. Taking advantage of this, the interviewer may easily steer the conversation along the most productive channels. Small inflections in the voice give encouragement. By repeating phrases already expressed, one finds the respondent expanding with details on a relevant issue. Sometimes, merely restating the reply allows a time for reflection and quite natural expansion or clarification of a point perhaps lost in the first verbalization. Phrasing a question by rewording it into a rhetorical one gives the interviewee a period to think through a definite response (although caution should be observed that the “right” words are not put into the mind of the interviewee).
Support given by nodding is most effective. Other nonverbal means of rendering assistance are equally significant. The use of semi verbal expressions of a meaningless nature—for instance, “Umm…”—can prove most useful. Because such utterances provide no direct interpretation, they are received as the interviewee wants to receive them. They then emphasize or magnify the point as they see fit.
A succinct summary of information from time to time not only allows for clarity in the communication process but also gives the informant a mirror of just what has occurred. Alterations can be made easily by the interviewee once they hear what they have said. In the final stage, a precise statement of what was agreed on or of the general conclusions reached often allows for a reduction of confusion.
When details or figures have been discussed, the summary can often be in the form of a written memorandum. If the interviewer wants to be sure of what the interviewee communicated or to check on whether the interviewee really understood the data discussed, they can ask them to write the memorandum.
The tools of the interviewer are their questions. They should be used with dispatch and yet with the utmost care. Sarcasm or obscure humor should be avoided unless the interviewer is positive that the interviewee perceives them as such. Usually, the latter’s interpretation of such activity is entirely serious; they may respond at the time with a semblance of perceived humor, but the real reaction is often deep concern and suspicion.
Through the judicious use of questions, the skilled interviewer not only obtains information but also guides the talk along productive lines. Leading questions or questions designed with built-in responses are usually not very effective. Similarly, the double-negative type of interrogation is to be shunned as it tends to evoke anxiety. To avoid slipping into such traps, even the best interviewer should review their questioning techniques from time to time. Thus, self-analyzing by tape recording or by having a third person observe an interview for diagnostic purposes can prevent poor techniques from developing into set procedures. This process may be extended to the use of videotape recordings with proportionately more significant results.
In a research project that concentrated on questioning techniques, the interviewers analyzed the recordings of about 100 interviews held for the purpose of selecting job applicants, appraising executive performance, or counseling employees in their careers. One of the conclusions from this study is this: Successful interviewers (as evaluated by information obtained) utilize at the outset of the interview a pattern of broad, general questions. Apparently this allows the respondent to answer with information that they feel is important, as well as providing the respondent the opportunity to expand into areas that they deem to be of vital concern. Once this information is released, the interviewer can sharpen the focus with specific questions eliciting short answers. For example, the “yes or no” kind of question should be reserved for the final exploration of a subject, while queries such as “How do you feel about working with XX’s group?” might well obtain results most useful at the beginning of a particular subject.
Fear of silence
It seems that silence in our society is to be avoided at virtually all times and all places. Unfortunately, this feeling affects the interview. Usually fear of silence is felt most by the inexperienced interviewer. All too often they tend to put forth another question while the respondent is meekly attempting to formulate their own thoughts into a logical reply—all just to keep the air filled with words.
The tendency to hurry questions and answers is compounded by the distorted sense of time that people get during an interview. To understand the amount of distortion, one research group carried out such simple tests as stopping a conversation for a short period. Interviewers’ estimates of the period of silence magnified it by a factor of 10 to 100! On the other hand, when asking participants in an interview to estimate the time elapsed, invariably the interviewee underestimates the period. Consequently, the interviewer in particular should be cautious of pushing forward too quickly. In many instances, if they permit another few seconds to elapse, they will obtain vital bits of information that would otherwise be lost or allowed to remain in a half-expressed state in the interviewee’s thought processes.
During these periods of silence, the interviewer may profitably spend their time pondering the question: “What are they really trying to tell me?” Often the content of the interview makes an incomplete story when analyzed later on. Not only may the words fall far short of the desired goal, but also they may convey misunderstandings. Allowances for the ever-present failures in semantics must constantly be made, and further interrogation conducted, in order that a clear approximation of the true meaning be obtained.
Art of listening
The often posed maxim to the effect that we hear what we wish to hear does not appear at first glance to be a profound statement. Yet it summarizes the mechanics that lie behind poor listening techniques. Individual biases and attitudes as well as role perceptions and stereotyping all contribute to the phenomenon of selective perception. Thus, to obtain the best possible information, it is necessary that one be aware of their own particular filters that tend to impede if not prevent clear and relatively undistorted reception of information.
It is possible to hear at the rate of 110 to 140 words per minute over sustained periods. The thinking or thought projection rate is approximately seven times this figure. The result is a surplus of thinking time over listening time. The manner in which this surplus time is utilized varies, of course, with the individual. However, it is at this point that the interviewer tends to project their ideas into the interview process, thereby filtering out the interviewee’s responses.
One result is that they make assumptions about the respondent and their information that are not so much with the interviewee as with what the interviewer has already concluded about the interviewee. Suffice it to say that it is altogether more rewarding to spend this extra time in formulating hypotheses, which later can be confirmed or denied as more information is revealed, or in constructing a frame of reference for the ongoing interview, which allows acquired information to be categorized easily as it is given.
The information that is gathered should be approached and analyzed from two points of reference: the objective and the subjective.
Objective view. The objective category can be broken down into content and form:
Content—This term refers to the factual presentation: what is actually being said and whether it is reliable. The overview of the interview or the pattern of the total situation must be firmly grasped and then noted.
Subjective view. In evaluating information from a subjective point of view, the interviewer is attempting primarily to assess feelings and attitudes. It is often argued that these intangibles have no obvious place in an interview that takes place in a business environment. Yet, even though it is impossible to determine exactly how feelings and attitudes do influence the information transmitted, it is nonetheless crucially necessary that one be fully aware of the fact that these intangibles are powerful, active agents in creating opinions.
Concluding the meeting
The final 10% of the interview is perhaps the most important, since the greatest amount of information per unit of time is generally exchanged during this time interval. In a series of taped interviews involving appliance sales and sales in which travel arrangements were a factor, it was found that the salesperson often did not hear vital information offered toward the end of the interview or after the sale. This overlooked information brought about frequent misinterpretations, which, in turn, accounted for many later cancellations and unsettled complaints. All of this could have been avoided if a moderate amount of attention had been exercised so as to prevent a premature termination of the interview.
Part of the conclusion usually consists of a plan of action—something to be done or achieved by either or both parties. A clear, concise summary of this plan, as mentioned earlier, is a most useful technique for achieving good results. The summary is helpful to both parties because it enables them to realize exactly what has been accomplished as well as to focus on a final concordance.
A general failing of interviewers is their inability to document just what occurred in a talk. In their usual—often premeditated—hurry to get to the next interview, they neglect valuable notes. This impatience in many cases is merely behavior resulting from a self-satisfying need to prove to themselves that they are busy.
Adequate notation of significant events, impressions, and agreed-on information is of great value in reconstructing the interview at a later date and in providing a framework for planning the next session. By documenting a series of events, one is able to see things that, if merely left to the fragile human memory, may fuse into meaningless, disconnected scenes in a panorama of many human happenings. To be sure, too much recorded information may well lead to a surfeit of data, a situation I have also observed in several interviewing offices, but this extreme is easily prevented if good judgment is exercised.
But of all types of learning, self-learning is the most valuable. Without a doubt the most important key to effective interviewing is recognizing how one’s own attitudes and biases affect the information they acquire.
This post was originally published on https://hbr.org/1964/01/strategies-of-effective-interviewing