The key to effective interviewing is asking good follow-up questions. But most people don’t listen well, and many interviews fail because of poor listening skills. Listening well is a skill you can learn and perfect.
Your brain is the problem. We listen four times as fast as people speak, so your mind can go wandering off. Good listening involves riveting your attention.
First of all, decide that you want to hear everything the person says, whether it’s interesting or not. Most human speech has low information content and aims at tending social relationships. Think of listening as information mining. You need to gather lots of spoken data to dig out the good stuff.
Second, do not think about what you’re going to ask or say next while you’re listening. Then you’re not paying attention to the subject, but to yourself. In fact, don’t think about yourself at all during an interview.
My pal Ed Miller uses this trick: “I stare intently at the person’s eyes while envisioning a little sign on his forehead that says, ‘Please listen to me!’ …. Every time I look in their eyes, my peripheral vision ‘sees’ that reminder to concentrate.”
Third, wait a while before evaluating the accuracy or truth of what the subject is saying. If in doubt, put a question mark beside that item in your notebook. Otherwise, you may start arguing with the subject in your head while she keeps talking. Again, you’re not paying attention. Later, you can ask a dissenting question. And what you thought was wrong may turn out to be valid when you’ve heard more.
Fourth, avoid comparing yourself with the person you’re listening to. Again, your brain loves to keep score and distracts you. Your subject rambles along, and you start thinking, “What a dodo. I’m a lot smarter than this guy. Why am I wasting my time with him?” And he just said, “I stole my grandmother’s trust fund,” but you weren’t paying attention.
Your brain knows two things: it’s smarter than anybody else, and you’re a phony. So it can also start undermining you, like this: “Geez, this guy’s smart, a lot smarter than I am. He obviously thinks I’m a dunce. Oops, was that a yawn? I’m boring him to death….” And he just said, “Astrophysics is all crap,” but you weren’t paying attention.
Fifth, take good notes. Writers who take effective notes listen better. They’re tuned up not just for the good stuff, but also for the clues to the good stuff. In a future blog, I rant against tape recorders. Here I will say simply that taping encourages lazy notetaking and lazy listening.