Listening skills for awesome interviews

Listen with both ears when conducting interviews to find amazing stories.
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Most jobs require interviewing and listening skills. Interviewing is an essential part of interpersonal communication. And, it’s the way business gets done.

Authors and journalists conduct interviews to uncover background information, quotes, and anecdotes. Technical writers and researchers collect data and find patterns while interviewing subject matter experts.

Business consultants and software programmers discover client needs, concerns, and desired outcomes during the interview process. Even newly hired employees need to be effective interviewers with good listening skills to learn how to do their job correctly.

People may collect information in different ways during an interview, but the soft skills needed to be an efficient interviewer are the same for every situation.

Be a good listener while guiding interviews

When I walked into my first technical writing gig, I freaked as the manager introduced me to the long line of programmers I would be interviewing.

It was my first day, and I was clueless. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know what questions to ask, and, to be honest, I didn’t know how to dig for the information I needed.

I did my best to direct the interview conversations. Still, I felt I had lost control when a programmer rambled on about how this piece of code processed a dataset, and that piece of code did a sort function.

I didn’t realize that the more I tried to direct the interview, the less I learned about the job I had been assigned to do.

As I stumbled and stammered through those first few interviews, I felt my confidence deflate.

And then I met Andrea. Andrea had a reputation around the office for being the most personable and productive programmer on staff.

As I watched Andrea, I saw that it wasn’t her fluent conversation that helped her gather material. Instead, she was the quiet type. It was her attentive listening skills that everyone admired.

During interviews, Andrea focused entirely on the person she interviewed and listened with both ears open. She showed interest in the topic, made her interview subject feel important, and concentrated on the conversation.

Not once during an interview did she look out the window, doodle in her notebook, or check her messages.

I’d like to share the soft skills Andrea used to be a good listener and an effective interviewer.

7 listening skills you'll need for compelling interviews

Remember names, faces, and places

Andrea’s most admired talent was her ability to remember people’s names and recall small tidbits of information about places or events.

What was Andrea’s secret?

Andrea prepared in advance. Before an interview, she wrote the interview subject’s name at the top of her notepad and added them to her contact list. And, along with keeping an address book filled with the names of people she met, she wrote down a few things about them.

I asked Andrea what she did when she couldn’t remember a name or recall some other piece of information. “I don’t hide it,” she said.

Instead of covering up her lack of knowledge, she was frank during the interview and admitted her inability to remember.

Andrea’s co-workers appreciated this frankness, and this frankness made her appear genuine.

She didn’t worry about the occasional name-forgetting experience. “It happens to the best of us, even when we make an effort to remember the names of people we’ve met and other important details,” she admitted.

Focus your attention on the interview

One day, I watched Andrea conduct an interview. I watched how she kept her interview subject animated and talkative. How she leaned slightly forward as she listened and focused her eyes on the person she interviewed. When she looked away from the person, it was only for a second to jot down a quick note.

A Tip from Andrea  The recorder is your best friend in an interview. Camouflage the recorder so that it’s visible but doesn’t detract from the conversation. If you must use a microphone, don’t hold it in your interview subject’s face.

After the interview, I asked the person why he responded to Andrea the way he did.

“She listens as if I am the only person in the world, and she’s always interested in what I have to say.” He also said he was happy to grant Andrea an interview any time she asked.

It is possible to be a good interviewer even if you’re tongue-tied or stuttering-shy around people you don’t know well. Just listen with a kindly presence and pay attention to the people talking to you.

You’ll be amazed at how well they respond and how freely they answer the questions you ask.

Show interest in the topic

It’s not always easy to be a good listener. Especially when the subject is unfamiliar to you or when a person has a monotone manner of speech. The challenge is to stay awake during these times.

I asked Andrea how she managed to stay interested and involved during those problematic interviews. “When I act interested and listen for the interesting details, it doesn’t take long before I really am interested in the subject,” she replied.

How does she stay awake when the conversation gets monotonous? “I remind myself that I have a job to do, and it’s my job to be interested in the topic so that I can explain it to others in a fun and informative way.”

Don’t interrupt when someone is talking

Andrea never interrupts the other person during an interview. “It’s bad manners to interrupt people when they are talking, and it doesn’t get the job done,” she told me.

A good listener doesn’t interrupt the conversation. If you don’t understand what’s being said, wait until your interview subject pauses before asking a question. “Let them finish their sentence,” Andrea recommended.

When an interview subject searches for a word, resist the temptation to supply the word for them. It’s impolite and can leave your interview subject feeling inferior.

When interviewing someone with a stutter or other speech impediment, curb your desire to help them out. The person is aware of their speech difficulty and works hard to overcome their challenge. Interrupting them may only cause more frustration.

Hide your boredom and stay engaged

Yawning, eye-rolling, and answering the phone during an interview are rude, and these gestures distract the person being interviewed.

Andrea believes the interviewer must stay engaged in the conversation by “finding ways to keep the conversation interesting and productive.”

A good listener prompts an interview subject to continue talking. When confronted with boredom, Andrea gets more involved in the interview. She may ask more questions than usual, or she asks her interview subject to draw diagrams.

“Anything that breaks the interview routine can break the boredom,” she offered.

Express your gratefulness for the person’s time

After an interview, Andrea thanks the person for sharing their time and knowledge. She also lets them know that they played an essential role in her research.

“I want them to know it was worth my time to met with them, that what they told me was significant to the project, and that they made my job easier,” she said.

Andrea feels a simple thank you ensures that future encounters run smoothly and without friction.

Constantly improve your interview and listening skills

Andrea’s talent for listening was cultivated over time and with experience. Becoming a good listener may be hard work, but it’s worth the effort. Andrea credits her success to her eagerness to learn, her ability to focus her attention, and her genuine interest in the people she interviews.

If you want to find memorable stories, hone your listening skills. Excellent listening skills are a must when conducting interviews because when you listen carefully, you’ll find a wealth of information you’d never find any other way.