- The proper kind of preparation for the interview.
- Value of such procedures as having an outline of points to be covered and taking notes.
- Use (and misuse) of questions and questioning techniques.
- The kind and amount of control that the interviewer should exercise over the discussion.
- Analysis and evaluation of information obtained.
Planning & Preparation
In presenting information, a speaker allocates blocks of time to various items on his 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 ten 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 which otherwise might be withheld. If the interview is terminated too abruptly, the probability of losing valuable information is very high.
Guiding the conversation
Support given by nodding is most effective. Other nonverbal means of rendering assistance are equally significant. The use of semiverbal 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. He then emphasizes or magnifies the point as he sees 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 he hears what he has 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, he can ask him to write the memorandum.
In a research project that concentrated on questioning techniques, I 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 which he feels is important, as well as providing him the opportunity to expand into areas that he deems 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 Joe Smith’s group?” might well obtain results most useful at the beginning of a particular subject.
Fear of silence
During these periods of silence, the interviewer may profitably spend his time pondering the question: “What is he 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, in order to obtain the best possible information, it is necessary that one be aware of his own particular filters that tend to impede if not prevent clear and relatively undistorted reception of information.
One result is that he makes assumptions about the respondent and his information that are compatible 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 on-going 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.
The objective category can be broken down into content and form:
1. Content—This term refers, of course, to the factual presentation—what is actually being said and whether or not it is reliable. The overview of the interview or the pattern of the total situation must be firmly grasped and then noted. In addition, it would seem that the following items are valuable in evaluating information—
- A response that is overwhelmingly conventional is likely to be suspect, owing to the great possibility of its being less than valid. For instance, in an employment interview, the response, “My boss didn’t like me,” is suspect as a cliché. Similarly, the response, “I quit that job because the pay was too low,” could be merely a platitude to satisfy the interviewer.
- If the respondent is impervious to interruption during the interview, then a measure of doubt is cast as to the kind of information the interviewee is relating. Such behavior generally indicates a need to cover all points in a predetermined pattern with such compulsion that, if the interviewee were interrupted, he would never be able to reassemble all the parts. Weaknesses in the “pseudo armor” should be investigated.
- A constant shifting of the subject or an extremely short attention span often denotes a degree of suspicion.
- Should gaps or illogical sequences be prevalent, care should be exercised to augment or to complete the lapses. The voids should be completed by direct interrogation, preferably later in the interview, to check continuity and to arouse a minimum of suspicion by the informant. Later validation by telephone may help with these questions.
- Conflicting times or facts as well as gaps or illogical sequences may indicate areas for careful attention or further penetration.
- Useful visual barometers of an unduly high anxiety level are such things as—
a. color of face
b. erratic body movements
c. varying eye contact
d. dryness of the mouth
e. pitch of the voice
f. excessive perspiration
2. Form—By form I mean the “how, when, and why” of the information. Words take on different meanings when differentiated along these lines. Form can be subdivided into verbal (what is heard) and into nonverbal (what is observed) content. Nonverbal expressions are perhaps the purest kind of information transmitted, since they are the most difficult to mask or disguise. By developing an awareness of and a sensitivity to such signals as when a certain fact was mentioned, what prompted the mention, how it was presented, and so forth, the skilled interviewer takes a most useful if not an essential step. Indeed, this awareness might well be extended to include the nonverbal transmissions of the interviewer himself.
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 sales person 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.