Interviewing as listening

Listening is the root of collaboration, root-cause analysis, and effective teamwork. It is also the single greatest source of establishing unity from top to bottom and bottom to top. – David Shaner, The Seven Arts of Change

Illustration: Igor Kopelnitsky

If, as I suggested in my previous post, interviewing is a method of performing emotional due diligence, how can you approach each interview to maximize learning, engagement, and emotional insight?

With deep listening.

Adopting a beginner’s mind.

And a design attitude.

Too often, we allow our preconceptions, mental models, and perceptions of the other person to run interference. Instead of listening, we’re silently arguing, editing what the other person is saying to fit our own mental models, or worrying about our next question.

Consider what the joke about the designer and the light bulb reveals about a design attitude.

How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?

Why a light bulb?  

Turn off your ego

Approach each interview with that why foremost in your mind.

Who is this person? What do they care about? Why? Why do they see the world that way? What does it mean? What hypotheses can I test?

Listening is not an automatic pilot. It is a conscious decision… STOP EVERYTHING YOU’RE THINKING and listen. Suspend your own frame of reference. Focus externally. Turn off your ego. Quit thinking everything revolves around your opinion. Give the stage in your head to someone else! – Sunni Brown

You don’t have to be a designer to have a design attitude or a buddist to have a beginner’s mind. Test your attitude by asking yourself:

  • Am I putting aside my assumptions?
  • Am I trying to understand how this person sees themselves and their world?
  • Do I allow myself to ask stupid questions?
  • Am I suspending judgment, holding my analytical mind in check?
  • Am I digging below surface-level facts, explanations, or generalizations to uncover the underlying story?
  • Can I look past the words themselves to the meaning or story hidden in the spaces between the words?

The process of listening so others will talk,  developed by  Carl Rogers, is called reflective listening. Reflective listening involves shifting your mindset from “how do I see this person?” to “How does this person see themselves and their situation?” Your goal when interviewing is to see the world from the other person’s point of view. Using reflective listening techniques  (which I’ll dig into in more detail in a future post) you’ll reduce defensiveness, build trust, make a person feel understood, and increase insight. 

Probe for meaning

If you’ve familiar with the analogy of the Elephant and the Rider, adopting a design attitude when interviewing allows you to probe beneath the interviewee’s Rider, the portion of their brain that excels at generalizations, rationalizations, and explanations (expressed knowledge) and dig for the rich meaning held by the Elephant, the portion of the brain operating outside our conscious awareness that holds a goldmine of tacit and fertile knowledge.

active listening

You’re in discovery mode. Not just discovery of facts, but more importantly discovery of the context or story which weaves together those facts to infuse a particular meaning into how that person views the organization and their work. For it’s the story or meaning they assign to facts that determines their behavior and drives their decisions.   

Shift yourself into the right mindset by approaching each interview with deep curiosity, imagining each person as the keeper of a mystery to uncover. As Malcolm Gladwell said: “Everyone has a story. When people are talking about something they know well and do well, they’re almost always interesting. And if they’re not, it’s generally your fault because you’re not asking the right questions and you haven’t made them comfortable.”

There is so much power in this small act [of listening] because it can immediately establish trust and diffuse the negative energy exuding from individuals at the outset of change. No speech, act, or intervention can accomplish such a deep measure of trust in such as short time. And trust is what you’re after. – David Shaner, The Seven Arts of Change

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