When You Can't Ask Directly

Jon, over at the Business Evolutionist, writes about interviewing skills in The Long Interview. In particular, he talks about eliciting information that goes deeper than the surface details that people usually offer.

I've been fortunate enough to spend years of my life interviewing people about processes and experiences. For a good chunk of the early 90's I focused on processes in the legal profession (and lived to tell the tale!). One challenging aspect of these interviews was eliciting the things that could go wrong in the process. Lawyer interviewees could expound ad infinitum on every aspect of their work except that one. It's as though they had a cranial implant that prevented them from discussing problems. They'd stammer, or stare at you with a blank look, or search their minds for some way to paper over any difficulties. Anything but admit that problems did occur.

Unfortunately, you can't really understand a process until you know how to break it. We needed to ask the question in a way that preserved the infallibility of the interviewee. Here's our alternative:
Congratulations! You've just won an all-expenses paid 6-month vacation on a private tropical island. The only catch is that you have to leave tonight, and you won't be able to contact the office until you return. You have 15 minutes to train your replacement,and your bonus is riding on their performance. What do you need to tell them so they can succeed?
And we got all the information we needed about problems and contingencies to prevent them! In interviewing, understanding the context can be as important as the questions themselves. What barriers will the interviewee's brain put in the path to understanding? How can you eliminate those barriers? In many cases, your old friends WIIFM* and MMFI* will help you immensely, as they did in our interviews with attorneys. Lawyers spend their lives advising other people on how to avoid all sorts of possible problems, and were perfectly comfortable answering questions posed in those terms.

The next time you need to ask an important question, design it for the context in which it will be answered.

*What's In It For Me and Make Me Feel Important

posted by Mike at 7:35 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, great point about the context. I totally agree about the WIIFM and MMFI.

There are two questions that I end every interview with:

1.) What question should I have asked that I didn't?

And when the interview is related to project work, I tack this at the very end...

2.) At the end of the project, when all is said and done, what would make you say WOW!?

2:31 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


I didn't discover the Tom Peters question (your number 2) until a few years ago, but it's often fun to watch people's faces as they think about their answer.

As for the "what didn't I ask that I should have" question, it should be standard issue in any interview. In my experience, "nothing" is by far the most common answer, but every once in a while you'll get some really great insights instead!

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yeah, the expression on most peoples face when you ask is just priceless. I think that in the few years that I've been asking it, I've only had about 20% response - most people are just so surprised, they don't know what to say.

Yeah, "nothing" is what I get most of the time for the other question as well. Maybe 20%-30% response on both those questions.

It's funny, my timing for asking the wow question is very delibrate - I wait until the person has closed their notebook or it is clear the conversation is at the end - they've mentally relaxed a little bit and typically they are a bit more open at that point - we've transitioned past the interviewer/interviewee thing, and it has proven to yield the best resulting answers. Asking it when they are still in response mode gets the great expression, but rarely gets the great response.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I'll use that technique from now on. Very nice!

4:46 PM  

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