This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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Seven years ago, I was sitting in the audience at the DC Tech Meetup. I was there to support a friend who was giving a presentation. And something one of the panelists said has stuck with me since.
It’s something I remind myself about before every customer interview.
Someone asked Melody Kramer
what she had learned while working for Terry Gross, host of the long-running NPR interview show Fresh Air
. She said that Terry Gross’s interview strategy is to ask a question, and then to
until it is uncomfortable.
“The other person will fill the silence, and they will usually fill it with the most interesting thing in the interview,” I remember Kramer quoting Gross as saying.
This strategy of asking a question – or using a validating phrase
– and then waiting at least three beats for the other person to fill it is something I use in every single interview, often multiple times.
There’s another story I heard years ago that shapes every interview.
It was about when people go to the doctor for their annual physical. They’ll go through all of the questions with the doctor, compliantly answering questions about sleep, caffeine, medications, and so forth. And it is only when the doctor is reaching for the door and says “so is there anything else you want to talk about?” that the person will tell them what is actually going on.
When I plan customer interviews, I plan that the first half of the interview will be spent on questions in my script, and leave the second half completely open for what comes after what I call the Reaching For The Door question. For example, if it’s an hour interview, I’ll ask this at the 30 minute mark.
This question is simple, and you ask it in the most harmless voice you can possibly muster:
“Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I learned a lot from you. (breath) Is there anything else you think I should know?”
and then you wait.
And the person might say, “Well…”
and you wait,
for them to fill it.
Don’t prompt by saying things like “Anything about process, or tools, or feedback, or…” JUST. WAIT. Do not fill the space.
It’s hard! I know!
You can do it.
Now, if 30 seconds goes by – and a real 30 seconds, not a 5 second pause that feels like 30 seconds – and they say “Are you still there?” you can say “Oh, yes, I thought you were about to say something,” or something else that throws the Conversation Ball back to them.
They might genuinely not have anything to say, so you can say “Well I can give you some off your time back. I really appreciate you taking the time…” and go into your closing script.
Some people may have already said what they had to say in the beginning. Or are busy. Or aren’t really feeling the whole interview thing. And that’s fine.
I find that those interviews are more like 1/10, and 9/10 people take the Reaching for the Door question as a springboard to share what they really think about the topic.
More often than not, people will have something to say – and often times, in a big way.
I have found that interviews that felt like I was drawing blood from a stone will turn on a dime at this point, and out flows some absolutely incredible insights about the person’s process, fears, hopes, ideas.
I’ve thought a lot about why this is.
Do you want to know my theory?
We talked in the Validating Statements issue
about how interviews can be so powerful because people aren’t used to being listened to. In a B2B context, you’re probably asking them about a frequent process they’ve never really sat down and diagrammed for anyone, never had anyone really care enough to ask them for the nitty-gritty details.
From there on, you can just do a lot of listening with small follow-up questions, like “Can you say more about that?”
I find that my diagramming of the person’s process tends to go into turbo mode at this point. I often add new details to previous questions and really start to draw out the steps a person goes through, how much time/energy/frustration go into them, and so forth. (If you’re printing out your scripts, this is why leaving lots of line breaks in between questions and leaving one side of paper blank is helpful: you don’t have to go scrambling for another piece of paper.)
It might be scary to think that this part of the interview is unscripted, and worry about what you might say. If that sounds like you, you might jot down a couple of validating statements to use at the top of your script as a little phrase bank for yourself if you start to panic.
This might be a good time to tell you a secret about interview scripts.
The first half of the interview – the part where you’re following the script – is almost less important for the actual answers you get than for the rapport you build. The interview script serves two purposes: it directs the interview and helps you answer your questions, and it also primes the person to think about this topic and establishes trust that you are willing to listen to them.
This is why I think it’s important that you have a script and ask good questions, but it’s just as important to focus on how you ask those questions. It’s normal to feel like you need to spend a lot of time fussing over your questions…but your questions don’t have to be perfect. A grammatically clumsy question asked in a caring way beats out a perfect question asked in a cold way every time. Ask your questions gently and curiously, like you might a grandparent about a picture of themselves as a child.
So by the time you get to the Reaching for The Door question, they’ve got their mind going about this topic, they trust that you are interested in what they have to say about it, and more often than not, the floodgates will open. And then you just need to listen.