I became a writer because the page was the only place where I made any kind of sense. My verbal communication skills are a wreck, a jumbling, tumbling mess of run-on sentences, miscommunications and poorly conjugated verbs. But when I write, syntax becomes clear.
Writers cannot live on printed words alone, however. When you work in the fast-paced business of daily writing, you also have to face another part of the job: the phone interview. Live. With another person. And no visual cues or hand signals to convey meaning.
I’m admittedly guilty of avoiding phone interviews whenever I can, but recently I found myself on a tight deadline and scheduled three back-to-back interviews. To make matters worse, the day before my interviews I learned that I’d have to do all three in the car en route to an out-of-state funeral. I’d also have to do them in front of with my partner, Derrick, who is a psychiatrist. As in: someone who interviews people for a living.
I bombed my first interview. Hard. I was frazzled. I wasn’t as well prepared, and my questions were weak, ill-focused and boring. By the end of the interview, my subject couldn’t get off the phone fast enough. I hung up, defeated.
Derrick was silent. Then he said: “Can I offer one suggestion?”
All my questions were direct and pointed, he observed. They allowed no room for creativity, for storytelling, for silence: Whenever I heard a pause, I steamrolled right into the next question, even if it was out of place in the flow of conversation. I was terrified of awkward silences. As a result, I’d inadvertently made the conversation more awkward.
“Open with: Tell me about yourself,” he suggested. “Say: Tell me your story.”
So I dialed up the next interview subject. I thanked her for talking with me. Then I said “Tell me your story.”
And she did.
This simple change has made a remarkable difference in my interviews, and, in turn, my writing. Instead of me driving the interview with pointed questions that make my subjects play defense, I put them on offense. They drive the conversation. They decide what’s important for me to know. The details they give me are ones I wouldn’t think to ask for, but ones that make my reporting all the richer in the end.
Instead of interrogator, I become confidante; instead of nosy reporter, I become friend. This doesn’t mean avoiding tough subjects or dropping the ball on questions that aren’t answered sufficiently. It simply means that the key skill is listening.
I could say it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to know that. But in my case, it did.
Ready to start interviewing like a psychiatrist? Try these tips:
- Ask open-ended questions.
Never box in your subjects. Allow them room to breathe, and they’ll feel more comfortable and more in control – and thus more ready to open up and share.
- Invest in an audio recorder – not for your subjects, but for you.
Psychiatrists-in-training record or videotape their sessions (with patients’ consent, of course) and go over it with their fellow doctors. The idea is to not analyze the patient, but the doctor: Find out where she shows discomfort, when she misses a key statement or when she sounds unsympathetic. Writers should do the same: When do your nerves show? How could you have handled a transition better? When were you letting your desire to ask the next question get in the way of the flow of conversation?
- Get comfortable with silence.
Most of us are wildly uncomfortable with silence. As a writer, this can play to your advantage. When an awkward silence happens, force yourself to wait a second before talking over the dead air. Give your subjects a chance to fill the silence themselves: You may be surprised where they take the conversation.
- Learn to step in to redirect and refocus if needed.
Your interview subjects should carry the conversation, but you will occasionally need to step in and redirect your subjects to get them back on track after a lengthy tangent. This should be done gently, not abruptly. Try asking a related closed-ended question that requires a yes-or-no answer, then quickly use the pause after their answer to shift back to the topic at hand.
Nicki Porter is the senior editor at The Writer.