Consideration, planning, and communication savvy all play into the successful interview. Regardless of the issue at hand, you'll get better results if you follow a few best practices.
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Whether you're having a discussion with an employee about performance issues, trying to gather information about why a project failed, looking for feedback from a staff member about team dynamics, or evaluating someone for possible promotion, conducting a successful interview requires skill and planning on your part. Here are some pointers that will make it easier to get the information you need.
#1: Determine your objective
Before you schedule the interview, determine why you want to have it. What information can you gain from the interviewee? How will this information help you achieve your other goals? How will you be better off after having conducted this interview?
#2: Outline your areas
You certainly could write out the questions you plan to ask the interviewee and then read them aloud at the interview. However, this approach may make you look stilted and artificial, and it could hinder the flow of information. Furthermore, by reading your questions, you might miss nonverbal cues, such as body language, that could indicate an area for further questioning.
A better approach is to outline the general areas you want to cover. I do so at the top-right corner of the first sheet of the tablet I'm using. After I discuss an area, I cross it out.
#3: Pick the location
Meeting at the interviewee's office may make that person more at ease. Be aware of the possibility, though, that the interviewee might instead think you are invading his or her space. In that case, a neutral location, such as a conference room, cafeteria, or even Starbucks might be more appropriate. Present these alternatives and work things out with the interviewee.
#4: Observe standards of etiquette
If you're meeting in the interviewee's office, knock before entering. Don't sit down until invited to do so. During the interview, keep things to yourself. If you start invading the interviewee's personal space (for example, by gradually taking over the person's desk), the latter will become less willing to talk. See below for other reasons you should keep your notebook and other items near you.
#5: Open with standard rapport/small talk
Before starting the interview, take a few moments to get to know the interviewee. Ask the standard questions and make standard comments about weather or make positive comments about the meeting room or office or mementos on the interviewee's desk. However, be careful about speculating on photographs. That child whom you think is a grandson or granddaughter might actually be a son or daughter instead. A college or high school photo of the interviewee could cause problems if you say, "You looked great back then." Instead, keep your comments general, as in, "What a great photograph."
Once you've spent a few minutes with the getting-acquainted talk, you can start transitioning to the interview. To signal this transition, shift position in your seat , begin to take out a notebook or tablet, or say something like, "I appreciate your time. As you know, I've come to discuss...."
#6: Distinguish open and closed questions
Open questions begin with words such as "Who," "What," "Where," or "When." That is, they give the other person a chance to give a narrative response, without being confined by the question. Such questions are good when one is seeking general or background information. Their disadvantage is that they can cause an interviewee to ramble on endlessly.
Closed questions, on the other hand, call for a specific answer, usually a "Yes" or a "No." A person who asks a closed question is usually seeking a particular answer to a particular question. The disadvantage of closed questions is that in using them, you may be jumping too quickly to conclusions.
Both types of questions have their place during the interview. In general, begin with open questions. At this point, you want to get the big picture and to avoid jumping to conclusions or making wrong assumptions. When you ask open questions, you allow the other person to bring up matters you then can focus on more specifically.
As the interview progresses, use closed questions either to confirm your understanding or to explore in more depth the matter being discussed. You can also use closed questions to help control the rambling interviewee. If you think you know the point he or she is making, cut to the chase by asking a question such as, "So if I understand, your point is that..."? If you're right, the person will agree, and you will have saved time. If you're wrong, the person will let you know, and (you hope) will summarize the point quickly.
#7: Use notations to record impressions
When I take notes, I draw a vertical line one-third from the left of the page. On the right side, I will record the interviewee's comments. On the left side, I will record impressions and reactions, and reminders of things I should follow up on. In particular, if I hear something that clashes with what I already know or have been told, I will note the comment accordingly.
Be careful about your notations, though. People can read upside down. If you write "ridiculous" on the left side, the other person may take offense. A better alternative is to develop your own set of codes — one for "ridiculous," another for "follow up," etc.
#8: Hide your notepad and pen
Try to hide your notepad and pen while you're writing. Rather than write on a table or desk, keep the pad and pen in your lap so that the interviewee can't see any notations you've made. Furthermore, the person won't be able to see whether you're writing anything at all. If the interviewee sees you writing in reaction to some comments and not others, it might affect what he or she is saying or planning to say.
#9: Use tact when exploring sensitive issues
You may be conducting an interview to determine the cause of some high profile problem or failure. Perhaps you're interviewing someone who either caused the problem or is connected to it. In this case, tact and diplomacy are important, not only from a courtesy standpoint, but more pragmatically, to maximize the chances you get the information you are seeking.
Be careful about the word "you," because its overuse can make people feel defensive. Instead of saying, for example, "What factors led you to make that decision?" consider a passive construction, such as, "What factors led to the making of that decision?" Similarly, a hypothetical construction can soften a question, such as, "What might have caused the accident?"
I'm not saying you always have to use such techniques. Rather, I'm recommending that you consider such alternatives before asking your questions.
#10: Contradict with caution
Be careful when confronting an interviewee who gives you contradictory information. That person might be innocently mistaken or might have recalled things incorrectly. Calling him or her a liar will hardly endear you, and it certainly won't advance the interview. Instead, consider a statement such as, "That's interesting, because I've heard different things from other people...." Making this kind of statement signals that you may not disagree, but that the other interviewees might. You could go one step further and adopt the Columbo approach — namely, pleading ignorance and lack of familiarity, then asking the interviewee to explain differences with you have heard elsewhere.
Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.