Interviewing people is a mostly linear exercise. We ask a question, note the response and move on to another question, usually in a chronological order.
This is perfectly acceptable so long as the interviewer is paying close attention to the responses. Tucked away in the answer, often betrayed by a nervous pause or shift in the subject’s body language, is a hint that a more substantive answer lies elsewhere. It is up to the interviewer to deviate from the script and probe in a new direction.
The biggest drawback with the linear interview process, I think, is that it teaches the subject to respond in a linear fashion. This allows them to anticipate the next question and to formulate a response even before it is asked. In some ways, this is a good thing since it places the subject in a certain place at a certain time, creating a scenario that lets the mind roam a familiar landscape.
But without some gentle probing, you really only get what’s on the surface, those rote stories that have been repeated countless times over the years, at least mentally. To dig deeper you must ask more analytical questions, forcing subjects to stop momentarily and dig around in their memory bank before responding.
For example, you might ask someone: When did you peak? The ebb and flow of our lives includes those memorable times when everything is clicking just right. Athletes refer to these times as being “in the zone” – baseball hitters see the ball as big as a grapefruit and basketball players see the basket as big as Lake Erie.
Some physically precocious kids see their athletic careers peak in grade school. Similarly, many wallflowers in high school are simply late bloomers.
What makes this a good question is that we don’t normally think of our lives in those terms. We have to stop and think about it. The question opens the door for some thoughtful follow ups: Why did you pick that time? What made it so special for you? What happened after – did you try to get it back or did you just accept it and move on?
Bottom line: You have to ask good questions if you expect good answers.
Writing prompt for the day: Write about a peak time in your life.
Flickr photo courtesy of kevinzhengli.