In addition to learning to make better decisions, we should appreciate the power of conversation as a discovery tool, when we use it smartly to suspend judgement and not try to fit data points into a neat narrative until we have enough information to make sense of things. This without making it too much of a fishing expedition.
An example of fishing expeditions is when one of the two parties in a conversation is all questions and no information, withholding their role in the conversation, not sharing in it as it progresses. Which makes a conversation or an interview feel more like an interrogation. How it makes us feel is a good use of conversation as discovery tool. So it's not necessarily about how smart are the questions, but also how we build rapport.
Finding the sweet spot
Live conversations are a good interview format, but there are many others we can use effectively to draw insights. But just like with other pursuits, becoming a great interviewer is about finding the small number of high value questions that will yield huge returns in value for time spent. The rest is practice being in the conversation ―one on one is a different atmosphere and preparation than one to many, or many to many.
Finding the sweet spot takes a considerable chunk of active investigation, testing, and reflection. It takes time to find out what matters, and time to direct the observation and listening into small test to see how it goes. When we're formulating the questions, this is a way to get some sense of whether we're onto something.
And this touches on the crux of the problem ―getting quality feedback to keep improving our aim. One way is to keep testing, but that my not be very fast, or may soon lead to losing direction. There's a reason why sometimes interviews don't turn out so well.
Though we're quite eager to get people's advice, we're fairly poor at giving it, there is a lot more going on than prompts. So another way is to keep improving our ability to listen, observe, and draw quality feedback from the conversations we do have. Preferably in real time. Which is why networking is a good activity to practice this skill with purpose.
Exploring with a point of view
Conversations and interviews that explore experiences tend to be more enjoyable. But we still need to have a point of view, a direction. Asking too many open questions can lead to wandering. It's a good idea to create a framework for where we want to go. Then we can use a process to identify patterns, or insights that seem meaningful. In turn we can then test those.
As Brené Brown says, “Stories are data with a soul.” Her research led to understand that we may hide the very struggles from which we stand the most to learn under a patina of perfection. Because we numb and smooth things out. She says:
One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn't just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that's uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up.” That's it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort. We perfect.
So we need to watch out for the desire to make things perfect in business ―smooth out the story of what's going on with customers, or inside the organization too much and there is little insight to draw.
Bill Fox is the co-founder of Container13, a company that helps people and organizations thrive naturally in a world of constant whitewater. With co-founder Mari Grigorjan he created and published a series of interviews with business leaders, thinkers, authors, and researchers for Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces™.
As Bill said in a recent email, over the past seven years, he's interviewed over 90 people. One of the first interviews he did with a person he thought he knew, “completely surprised me with the insights and wisdom she shared. It was truly a remarkable experience I’ll never forget. I realized something very interesting had just happened.”
Process improvement in 5 minutes
Which led to the 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success interview series. Then came a review on Amazon, “Bill Fox's 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success has the most profound insights from the some of greatest minds in the Process Improvement industry.” The comment was about journalizing the interviews, but there is a lot more to it.
Bill suggests simple ways to draw insights from interviews:
- There was a lot of reflection, research and conversation to come up with the questions we ask and to sequence and frame them the way we did. Many people we interview mention the quality of the questions and how they flow and relate to each other.
- We invest a lot of time and research in choosing the people we interview. We read their books and read anything else they may have published or presented.
- When we conduct the interview, we create a unique space and listen in a way that allows many people to share insights. We listen without judgment and interruption.
- We set an intention for this interview series, and we remind ourselves of that intention before we do an interview and set an intention for the interview.
- Often we ask additional questions that expand and enhance the responses, but we normally don’t include our additional questions in the interviews, so we keep the interview more focused and simple.
- We painstakingly transcribe each interview ourselves and carefully edit each word and sentence to make sure we capture the message the person intended to communicate.
- On many of the interviews, we do a considerable amount of editing as well as highlighting of areas that need more clarification and work with the interviewee to address those issues.
- Then there’s a very active blogging, social media, and email campaign to share what we learn with all our followers and subscribers.
Elaborating what we hear is important to listening and the process of conversation. Some people find a way to make space for the person who's doing the talking by doodling. As a scientist colleague once described to me, doodling helped him relax his grip on competing with the speaker in his own head and just being present to it.
My favorite tools for note taking are a spiral bound, unlined Fabriano notebook and a mechanical pencil. As I take courses, work to digest information from a podcast, or summarize take aways from a book sketching notes by hand helps me elaborate in my own words. In the age of recording (on mobile, the TapeACall app is best), I still take long hand notes. When I listen to the call, I then use mind maps and visualizations to build on the conversation.
Bill interviewed me recently for his Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces™ project, so that will be in the next post of the series.