How to use interviewing techniques to have better conversations

As a journalist, conducting interviews is probably my favorite thing to do. Over the course of my career I’ve spoken with scientists, politicians, business leaders, inventors, Oscar winning actors and filmmakers, Pulitzer winners, double agents, spies, reformed criminals, and even the Dalai Lama.  By now, I’ve easily done thousands of interviews. But, probably the most nervous I’ve been is when I was tasked to report for a major newspaper on something a bit more political in nature. That’s because it meant having to speak with people who were particularly hesitant to speak to a journalist. And understandably so.   There were many things to overcome. Trust, being one of them. Nerves, was another. But, with some effort, we overcame both and had a great conversation. We didn’t have to agree on anything, either. In fact, it made the conversation more interesting.

As someone who speaks with people for a living, I think a lot about how to have good conversations.  I’ve listened to lectures by FBI negotiators, and have read countless psychology books—even police interrogation manuals. There was even a misguided detour into NLP and hypnosis. There’s nothing quite like practice, though.

There’s a lot to the art (and skill) of having strong conversations with humans, but the most important thing to show up with—regardless of whether you’re writing a story, or just chatting with the person next to you on an airplane—is a healthy dose of curiosity.  It will never let you down in a conversation and will automatically make you a better listener. Which is, perhaps, the most important part.

It all starts with curiosity, but here are some other strategies that I employ as an interviewer that might help you have better conversations:

•       Gather some background on the things your conversation partner has expertise in or is passionate about. You’ll be able to find more common ground, and you’ll be able form better questions.

•       Build a rapport before getting too far ahead into difficult or controversial topics.  There are several “tools” you can use to achieve this:    Humor, commonalities (eg. bring up things you know they’re into), and mirroring of body language/tone of voice/conversational style.

•       Ask open-ended questions — not questions that can be answered with a yes or no. So use words like: What, how, or why to begin your questions.   But make sure the questions have some specificity and aren’t overly wide in scope or it becomes too difficult to focus on a strand.

•       Don’t assume what the answer is going to be, and try to avoid statements of judgement to ensure that the person you’re conversing with feels like they can be as open as possible.  Fear of judgement, or knowing your own point-of-view too soon maybe mean that they would either adjust their words to appease you or avoid speaking honestly out of fear.  If your curiosity is what motivates you more than the desire to inflict your own opinion, you’ll naturally give priority to hearing what someone has to say first.

•       When I’ve had to deal with subjects who are either “difficult” or nervous, they key was finding out what it was that made them uncomfortable in the context of a conversation or interview, and address that from a) a place of understanding and b) by giving them a potential solution to alleviate their concerns.

•       A good question should put some sort of a demand on a person: They need to provide an answer. Don’t make statements, hoping that your conversation partner will answer.

•       The questions that elicit the best responses tend to be short and clear.  Often, people will spend half an hour (okay, an exaggeration, but not by much) talking about a question and by the time they are done, the person you’re talking to will wonder: What was the question again? Don’t be one of those people.

•       Ask questions that move the conversation along.  Make natural transitions and keep things conversational. It helps to organize questions and thoughts in a sequence that allows some connection from one to the next, in the way that someone’s mind might naturally follow.

•       Every so often, repeat answers back to your conversational partner. It tells them that you’re actually listening and also clarifies that you’ve understood them correctly.

•       Sometimes, it helps to repeat the last few words of what they’ve said. For example, if they say: “I’ve spent a lot time as a child being afraid.” You say: “So you were afraid a lot…” Often it gives them an opportunity to dive deeper on a point or a subject.

•       Avoid using BUT.  Eg. You’ve got a great point AND if we look at it from this angle, it would perhaps help us arrive at an even more interesting solution.

•       When tackling challenging or controversial areas, try to look for solutions instead of problems. People tend to focus on problems more, which are inherently negative, whereas solutions are inherently more positive by their nature and will often prevent a conversation from devolving.

•       Try to throw in surprising or fun questions, when appropriate, to break the pattern. It often helps me connect to the other person, particularly if the conversation gets too abstract and distant.

•       As nerve-wrecking and counter-productive as it may seem, allow for silence. It gives time for thought.  Also, sometimes nerves can cause the other person to say something unexpected and uncensored.

This is just a start. 

Do you have your own tips for having better conversations? Leave them in the comments below.