How to be a great interviewer

18 August 2023 Camilla Cicatello

Being a good interviewer is a critical skill whether you are in the research field or not. The ability to listen and ask good questions could even be seen as a core emotional intelligence skill. In this time of advancing automation and AI tools, knowing how to speak and interact with people is still important!

Yes, being a good researcher takes preparation, the crafting of good interview questions and using the rights frameworks or methods; however, this is not what I am referring to. I am speaking about the human side of interacting with people and meeting them where they are.

As a researcher, I’ve worked in several industries/fields yet my approach to interviews and communication is always similar. Below are a few ways I always approach my interviews:

  1. Build genuine rapport – this goes beyond asking them a few questions about themselves but rather seeing where you can make a deeper connection. See where in the interview they light up (notice body language) and try to ask a few more questions in this area. A common topic for me is children as people usually love to speak about their kids.

  2. Break down walls – Often, in interviews, particularly in persona research I ask deeper questions which can lead people to put up a wall and be hesitant to answer. The skill comes in honing in on something they find interesting and asking more questions on that topic which usually makes them feel more comfortable and ready to open up.

“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” – Roger Ebert

For example, I interviewed a software developer who was introverted and not very responsive; however, I asked him about his hobbies and he liked gaming so I asked him for a recommendation and told him about my experience of gaming. Before, I knew it the conversation started to flow much more easily which brings me to the next point…

  1. Turn the interview into a conversation – The goal of a research interview is for it not to feel like a job interview where the interviewee is just answering question after question. Rather it should feel like a conversation guided by the interviewer. A good way to do this is to work on your flow of questions prior to the interview. They should lead well into one another.

  2. Appropriate self-disclosure  Recently in a workshop with interns, a student asked me whether they can speak about themselves in the interview. This answer may differ among researchers; however, for me, it is a yes. Appropriate self-disclosure is where you reveal enough to make the interviewee feel comfortable, and once again turn the interview into more of a conversation. The trick with this is to never make the whole interview about yourself, but rather when you have commonalities with what the interviewee is saying mention it. People love to hear when other people have similar experiences as it makes us feel connected!

  3. Be willing to listen – This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how much some people just appreciate having someone to speak to and truly be heard even if it seems like an interview that isn’t personal. I’ve had situations where interviewees have cried to me, and in those times it is important to be present and listen. Don’t try to move the interview along quickly or avoid the awkwardness but simply listen. If you do not know what to say, you could just say that sounds hard or I hear you. 

I believe this approach really helps separate those who are interviewers simply reading questions off a list, and those who want to be empathic and human-centred, ultimately leading to overall better insights and better research.