I’ve always found it relatively easy to interview someone who is outgoing and an extrovert. The challenge is interviewing someone who is more withdrawn and tends to respond with one word or one sentence answers. It’s like pulling teeth to get their story. If it’s an older person who is also hard of hearing and has poor vision, it can make the interview that much more difficult.
So how do you interview a challenging subject? Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.
- Select a favorite spot. Make certain that your interview takes place in a room where your subject is comfortable. If she has a favorite chair or spot in the house, use that location for the interview.
- Engage in some idle “chit-chat”. Before sitting down to the interview, talk about the weather, sports, their art work – anything that allows your subject to feel more relaxed with you.
- Remain calm. If your subject senses you’re anxious about not getting much from the interview, she’s likely to become even less responsive.
- Leave some space. After your subject has responded to your question with a brief word or two, don’t leap in with another probing question in an attempt to get more out of him. Count to ten. Sometimes just leaving space makes people want to fill it in. If you’re lucky, your subject will start to add some more detail.
- Create a picture for your subject. Don’t ask, “What was your childhood home like?” Start by saying something like, “I want you to paint a picture of your childhood home for me. So we’re standing outside the front of your home and walking up to the front door. We open it and go inside. Tell me, what do we see as we go inside?” After some description of the entrance go on with, “That’s wonderful. Now let’s explore further. As we’re going down the hall what do we see?”
- Be specific. Avoid very general questions like, “What was your childhood like?” Chances are the response will be, “Oh, it was okay.” You want to get details. Ask something like, “I want you to think back to those memories of childhood when you were with your father. It might have been at play or at the supper table. Think back and select a moment that is vivid for you.[pause] Okay? Now describe for me where you were and what was happening.”
- Use open-ended questions. Open questions begin with who, what, where and when. For example, let’s say your subject replies, “It was a good marriage.” to your question of, “What was your married life like?” You can go further by asking, “How was it good?” This requires your subject to provide some specifics.
- For those who are hard of hearing, speak clearly and slowly. You need to make sure your questions are actually being heard. It seems obvious to say “speak loudly” but I find interviewers tend to go quiet on questions that are of an intimate or sensitive nature. You don’t need to shout but you do need to project your voice – like a stage actor.
I hope these tips will be of help with your next challenging interview subject. If you have some additional tips that work for you, please let me know by dropping a note in my comment box below. I always welcome comments.
Photo by Andy Hurvitz