Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Interviewing: How to Keep People Talking

So, I am helping a client write an article. She needs to interview some people for this article and it can only really be her who does it. She’s an engineer and she’s a little nervous because she has never done this before. She wanted some tips.

I have interviewed a lot of people. Not in the disingenuous-reporter way, but in the way of having a deep conversation that, hopefully, leads to understanding. I really, really want to know what the people I interview think and feel.

Here’s a generic interview list. To be sure, this doesn’t fit every situation, but you get the idea.

Before I wrote this post I did a quick google search on “Interviewing” and related terms. Most everything that came up was either about job interviews or pretty useless. Except for one written by the director Errol Morris. The gist?

Shut up and listen. But that’s not an easy thing to do.

I have no superlatives to explain how good Errol Morris is. The stuff he gets, the way he puts it together — just amazing. He has to be one of the best living interviewers. The film he won the oscar for, “The Fog of War” is basically just an interview with Vietnam Era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Morris also directs commercials and his work includes the Apple switch campaign.

So, to extend the ‘shut up and listen’ advice, here’s my two cents worth.

Don’t be a jerk, be prepared.

It means that you don’t need basic explanations for what you are talking about. You can get to the interesting stuff, right away.

In the moment, your intelligence is not all that useful.

It’s not your turn to show off with a really bright person. It’s your job to pull the best stuff out of the person you are interviewing. Humility and curiosity are the best tools for this job.

Your job is to keep them talking. Here’s my best two tricks.

Say the last few words they said, but give it a rising inflection. Give it a rising inflection? (yes!)

(pause) Yes. Utter silence. Let the pauses stretch to give them space to talk. But also to give them space to think.

Be patient, the first half is always a waste.

You have to talk to someone for at least thirty minutes before they will even think about telling you the truth. If you talk to someone long enough and you are sincere about listening to them, there will come a moment — more often than not they will literally lean in and say, “Okay, you here’s what I really think.” For me, that’s where the interview really begins.

If the subject is highly charged, you have to go back at least three times to get the truth.

I learned this from a defense attorney Wade Smith. He was defending a woman who killed her husband because he was beating the hell out of her. I happened in a small town in NC so nobody wanted to say anything. Her word against a dead man’s. He went back to the beauty parlor where his client worked three times. The third time they yelled at him, “We ain’t got nothing to say to you, why do you keep coming around?”

Wade said, “I’m sorry. I’m not here to bother you. I’ve walked all over this town and I’m not getting anywhere with anybody. But I’d just like to sit in the air conditioning for a minute.” Then he sat down and waited. Didn’t say a word. That’s when one of the defendant’s co-workers came forward and told him about how she would show up to work with bruises on her neck from where her husband had strangled her.

Yeah, shut up and listen. I guess that’s still the best tip in this post.

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Techniques for Dealing with Fear

I got some very good private and public responses to What is your Strategy for Dealing with Fear? So here are some specific techniques.

ONE — Catch it Early

Most people can only feel fear and anxiety in the body when it overwhelms them. By then it’s too late. But you can learn to be more sensitive. And if you catch it early enough you can do something about it.

Here’s an exercise from Systema that you can do. Pick a nice, reasonably empty room. Face a wall, maybe ten steps away. Close your eyes and walk towards the wall. The minute you a) stop breathing or b) change your stride or c) feel a fearful change in your body open your eyes. Note how far you are from the wall. Repeat and see if you can get very, very close to the wall.

If you want to be really push yourself, do this drill with sprinting instead of walking.
Also, if you think you have good balance, stand on one foot and close your eyes.

TWO — Work the Edge

This is one is from a golf teacher, so I’ll describe it in terms of golf, but you can do it with all kinds of equipment.

Get a bucket of golf balls and a trash can. Stand next to the empty trash can and drop a ball in. When you get five in a row, take a step away. When you get five in a row in, step away. The thing to play with here is that there will be a dividing point where the simple task becomes dramatically harder. One step farther away isn’t physically that much harder, but mentally, something will happen. Work that edge, a step forward, a step backwards. Notice when your breathing stops. Try it while holding your breath.

THREE — Turn it to Energy

What people often mistake for fear turns into fuel if you let it. All great performers know this. They’re all scared, but when they hit the stage, all that juice goes into the performance.

I don’t know a good drill to explain this. This comes from the doing. There’s a thought line in the movie Man on Fire about racing. When you are on the starter’s block, you are prison. The gunshot is what releases you.

And if you think you have it bad remember: At 75, Henry Fonda still threw up before each stage performance. But when his feet hit the stage he was fine. And, he kept performing.

FOUR — Combative Breathing

I keep alluding to breathing in these drills, because it’s the most important thing when you are dealing with fear. When you stop breathing, your autonomic nervous system thinks you are dying. But what’s the first thing we do when something scary happens. Quick, sharp inhale and then hold.

Breathing is the only consciously controllable link between your voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. Once your nervous system starts to freak out (a sympathetic nervous system) breathing is the only way you can influence it.

Most of learning how to deal with difficult situations (Fighting, dealing with a difficult client, parenting, being married 🙂 is learning how not to add fear and tension to yourself. Or rather, learning how to get rid of it under pressure. Because when the situation is serious, freaking out only degrades your performance.

So, breathing isn’t just a nice thing to do on a Yoga mat. It’s a tool. A weapon, even.

Go for a walk. After about 1/4 mile, exhale and hold your breath. Count the number of steps you take before you have to breath. Push yourself a little. Then, walk and breathe until you have completely recovered. If you’ve done it right, you should feel calmer.

The test is to do another cycle. If you are calmer and your nervous system is in a more relaxed state, you will be able to take more steps before you have to breathe again.

This drill is difficult. You won’t be good at it at first. I’ve done it for years and I still don’t feel good at it. But if nothing else, this will show you precisely what changes in your body when you freak out. So when the fear comes when you are not doing the drill, you can spot it sooner.

Hope some or all of that helps. If you try any of it, I’d love to know about your experience.

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What is Your Strategy for Dealing with Fear?

First, it’s important to note that this is not “What are you afraid of?” I think the strategy question is more useful. At a base level, we are never not going to be afraid. Anything worth doing comes with the fear baked right in. If there’s no fear or risk, how can there be a sense of accomplishment on the other side.

When I came up with this question, I thought my answer was going to make me feel good. I was very wrong. In the “hey-I’m-awesome” column, I do have good strategies for dealing for physical fear, especially of the rough-and-tumble kind. In training, even the biggest, toughest person is really afraid of something. Maybe it’s getting hit. Maybe it’s being in a constricted position on the ground. Everybody has something. It’s not rational, and it’s often not even worth analyzing. But when you approach it gradually, train yourself to be come sensitive to your adrenaline response and learn to use your breath to calm your nervous system, it becomes possible to work with fear. Courage is a skill.

But fear takes many forms. Fear of failure or embarrassment. Fear of success. And when I pointed the Harsh Flashlight of Inquiry at myself, I was embarrassed by my default strategy for dealing with fear.

For most of my life I have started a lot of projects and skipped around between them. Especially when one of them wasn’t going very well. I’d start one thing and if it wasn’t going well, I’d start something else. This business of having a lot of irons in the fire also helped me because I didn’t have to focus on whatever underlying emotional stuff might have been going on in my life. I was just too busy.

I should go without saying that this is not a very productive strategy. At least it has proved less destructive than alcoholism.

So what are some other strategies I (or anybody else) can use to deal with this fear? Here’s what I’ve got right now:

Focus on process rather than result.

For writing, this can be as simple as using the pomodoro method. Or not caring about the quality of what you are writing while you are writing it.

Focusing on process is like this: the first goal for starting a fitness program isn’t a weight lifted or a waist-size reached, it’s showing up at the gym three days a week. And when you think about it. That’s really the primary habit you want to build for anything. Showing up.

Do less to do more.

It might seem paradoxical, but strategically ignoring things is very productive. I’ve hit the pause button on a lot of things. My instinct right now is to throw myself into another book so that I might avoid the anxiety of now being the sole breadwinner and the addition of a second child to the family. But ignoring what what is troubling you is a short term strategy at best.

Also, a bunch of messy projects really drains my energy. Doing a few well, gives me more energy.

Believe in the importance of what you are doing

Many years ago I did Judo. And dojo I trained in had a kids program that was touted for being great for kids with ADD. What was the secret? It’s simple, no one has trouble paying attention when another person is trying to slam them into the mat. (Which reminds me a of a great line for Judo/Jiu-jistsu classes. “Hit them with the biggest thing you can find: The Earth.”

Nobody loses focus when something important is on the line. And I think my difficulty right now is that I don’t have what I’m trying to do defined well enough that it can be important. I’ve lived in this limbo where I’m not building a consultancy and writing novels. Or writing novels and building a consultancy. Or building a coaching business. Or… you get the idea. Whatever it is, one has to have priority. I think a person can do more than one big thing in a lifetime. But nobody can do multiple big thing simultaneously. It is to my embarrassment to write this, but what I’ve been doing is switching back and forth when anything got a little too scary or hard. Thus limiting my efforts in any one direction.

Okay, that’s certainly enough confessional for today. Do you have any strategies for dealing with fear?

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What About a Book of Questions?

I don’t have any answers for you. Only experts purport to have answers for other people. And expertise makes sense in limited, technical domains. But ask anybody who applies a complicated set of tools or skills for a client what the hardest part is? They will never say that using the tools and skills are hard. The hard part for an expert cabinet-maker is helping the client figure out what they really want in a set of cabinets. The hard part for an expert developer is nailing down the software requirements. The hard part for a Realtor… yeah, you get it.

One of the few things I know for sure is that no one is more of an expert in your life than you are. Nobody else has that kind of time to devote to your existence. You think someone else is going to be better at discovering what will make you happy than you are? Not a chance. The hard work of disciplining your own ego and finding a way to be happy in this uncertain world can only be done by you.

So my idea for today is, what about a list of questions, hard questions, that, if someone took the time to answer, would help them really figure out what they believed, what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it? What would that list be like? Would it be different for everyone or could it be universal? I suspect that the questions are universal, and the answers are what makes us individuals.

There is already a Book of Questions but those questions are interesting,but not the kind that I find particularly helpful.

If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about any one thing about yourself, life or the future, or anything else, what would you want to know and why?

If a country hit the U.S. with a nuclear bomb, would you favor unleashing our nuclear arsenal upon them?

Do you think the world will be a better or worse place 100 years from now. Do you see our present world as a better place than the world of a century ago? How so?

Of the three I picked from a quick skim, the last one is the most interesting to me. Because, presumably, how you answer it has some bearing on what you are going to do when you are done answering the question. Because that’s what I’m after. Questions to help me (or anyone) get more engaged in life and get more out of themselves.

But whatever the questions, I think a questioned-focused method of education is very, very sane.

I once went to hear Richard Saul Wurman speak. If you don’t know his work, you should, he is a brilliant man. One of the least impressive things he’s done is start the TED conference. In the middle of his fascinating talk he said this about education.

Look at a classroom. Teacher at the front asks questions. Students sit in neat rows and answer. It’s totally backwards. The one who ASKS the questions gets the EDUCATION.

I realize this that this idea edges over into self-help. But I think it’s on solid, stoic footing. First, because it’s not at all about self-esteem. But second because I believe we are, all of us, basically the ideas we have. So, to sharpen your idea of yourself is to sharpen yourself.

Look at it this way. If you don’t do something because you are afraid of it. Before you can do it, you first have to change your idea of the thing or the fear it causes.

Which leads to one of the more interesting questions I have come up with. What is your strategy for dealing with fear?

But that’s another post.

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Is the answer “asking better questions?”

This blogging every day is turning into a question and answer session with myself. And it is really working for me.

I think asking questions is the only way to solve problems, provided you answer them in a useful way. Note, I did not say ‘correct’. For most of human history the ‘correct’ answer was that the Earth was the center of the universe. You’d get full points on a test for that, but it wouldn’t help you solve the problem of why the planets sometimes moved in a strange directions in the sky. Or explain eclipses.

A central principle in my consulting work is that you have to answer questions in a way that allows you to ask better questions. To explain, I’ll take an impossible to settle question: Does God exist?

Yes and no are perfectly complete answers, but they don’t lead to more interesting and useful questions. Like ones that started with “If God existed…” Or “If God didn’t exist…” Or questions like, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot lift it?”

I think this is how all human understanding progresses. Newton is bored in church one day, so, as he sits there, he stares up at the chandelier swinging back and forth. He starts to ask himself questions about the period and speed of a pendulum. And from questions like that you get things like laws of motion and calculus.

So what are some interesting questions I (or any of us) can ask? Here’s a few off the top of my head. Please add yours in the comments.

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What is it you do when you are doing your best?

I mean absolute best. In the zone. Crushing it. Unstoppable? When you are both doing a magnificent job and you feel like death will never catch you? Like Eddie Felson in the Hustler.

You feel the roll of those balls.
You don’t have to look. You just know. Ya make
shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you
play that game the way nobody’s ever played it

“What do you do when you are at your best?” is an awesome question, and as I write this paragraph I don’t have a great answer to it. For two reasons.

  1. I might do too many things to have unity.
  2. I think I have done my real work under cover of another job title.

So, three domains. Marketing, Fiction, Martial Arts.

In the Martial Arts, I know what’s going on, but it’s hard to explain to people who don’t train. The last twenty years of training have been, ultimately, a class in Applied Stoicism. Fighting is easy. Things like self-control, self-discipline, the development of courage, generosity — resilience and creativity in the face of adversity — these things are hard. And very worthwhile. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of of everything is crap. This is very true of the Martial Arts and has, I think, gotten worse with the popularity of MAA. So does Rickson Gracie So what I’m doing is in this domain is self-development and self-awareness. You want good mindfulness training? Learn how to be mindful when everything is going wrong, not just when you are on the safety of a yoga mat or in a mediation retreat.

Fiction? I crack a line at the end of a chapter as well as anybody. My dialog is pretty good. But those are little things. Most of the time I know what I’m trying to do with a book. But when you write fiction you never actually do what you are trying to do. And the only way you figure out what a book is about is to write it. I don’t mean that you sit down to write a hard-boiled detective novel and realize that you have written a comedy of manners. What I mean is, on a deeper level, the theme of what you are working on reveals itself as you write. I think this means I’m doing it right. I think this might qualify as self-development and self-awareness as well.

And, professionally? This covers a lot of ground. In my career, I have had several people tell me that I am the best copywriter they have ever worked with. But what does that even mean? It means different things for taglines than it does for direct response, for sure. It means different things in different industries and different mediums. But, I think what makes me a good copywriter isn’t just being able to write well. Lots of people write well. But I do other things that I don’t have names for.

I keep and cultivate a grand synthesis. I am an endlessly curious generalist. Which is a good thing for writing, because (among other reasons) I can pull analogies from anywhere. And, if you want to make a dull subject interesting you connect it with something important. I have a client that makes pvc and cast iron pipe. And as I was chatting with one of their sales guys he remarked that “Pipe doesn’t really have a benefit you can explain.” The application we were talking about was drain waste and vent plumbing, the pipe that takes your sewage out of the house.

Now, his statement simply can’t be true. Everything people pay money for has a benefit. There toilet not backing up is a tremendous benefit. The sales guy was enmeshed in technical sales, so it he forgot this. But he also forgot the biggest benefit of all. I explained it like this: “Hey, you remember cholera? No? You’re welcome.”

It’s no stretch to say that civilization is plumbing. You can have empires without the internet, but not without plumbing. I have done this kind of thing over and over again in my career. There is meaning and nobility in the world and our obsession with narrow specializations often hides it from the people who need it the most.

The second thing I do, is help organizations figure out what they stand for and how to communicate it. Some might call this branding and positioning, but what I do is more fundamental than that. It requires that you understand the business, the benefit it provides, the people who make it work and the people who are or will buy. It is simultaneously analytical and creative.

Every time I have done this for a company — and I think I’m up to twelve of these gigs at this point — I have gone in thinking. “Man, this is a bullshit assignment. Everybody is spouting branding and marketing nonsense. Nothing about this situation is going to change.” But by the time I was done, some amazing things had happened. It’s really not to my credit. I understand and offer, the client have to do the work. I’ll outline a few cases in other posts. But really, I can get a company to ‘why.’ And when a group of people have a why, the how part becomes much more effective.

As Emerson said, “The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why, will always be his boss.”

For a wonderful explanation of the importance of why, try this talk by Simon Sinek.

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