What Negotiation Can Teach Creators About Becoming Better Interviewers
Interviewing is a crucial skill for many podcast, Youtube & even newsletter creators, not to mention a crucial step in the process of monetization, so how do you get better?
Interviewing is a touchstone of many creators’ jobs - whether it's interviewing someone for a podcast, newsletter, or Youtube channel - or developing a product based on insights from your audience. But sometimes being a great interviewer (and by extension a great active listener) is the kind of soft skill that seems only marginally useful. Or so I thought.
But lately I’ve been thinking about the likes of Oprah, who basically built an empire around her skills as an interviewer, or about the way interviews are actually the foundation of any task: from convincing another creator to collaborate to asking an audience about what to build next.
As both a podcaster and former user researcher/ product developer, I’ve always struggled to understand how to get better as an interviewer. I’ve put in a whole lot of hours, but has that made me that much better at this craft? This month, I found a surprising source of insights in a book on negotiation.
It’s not just any book, but one that applies the principles of behavioral psychology to high stakes hostage negotiation. The book is called Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. And its fundamental premise is that negotiation shouldn’t be a battle; it should be an act of discovery. The ultimate objective of negotiation is therefore to uncover as much information as is available. Sounds eerily similar to the ultimate goal of an interviewer creating entertainment content or developing a product, doesn’t it? Here are a few negotiation principles that you can readily adapt to your own interviewing work!
So how do you prepare for an interview (or a negotiation for that matter)? There are a few first principles and mindsets that are important.
Your goal is to discover as much information as possible, especially information about the real, irrational & emotional needs driving a person’s behavior.
Your means to this discovery is active listening and tactical empathy. Active listening is the most effective way to make people feel understood & accepted, which is a fundamental human need.
Though research is important, don’t come into an interview with assumptions. Come in with hypotheses - ideas that you will test, discard, and develop in real-time as you discover new information .1
Adopting A Mindset of Discovery
So what does this mean as a podcaster or interviewer?
Remember that your ultimate goal is to find out as much information as possible as it relates to what drives the other person, their needs, and their challenges. The most engaging stories touch on fundamental human needs.
Coming in prepared with research and a list of questions. But make sure to treat these questions as hypotheses and to remember to go off script. These questions are starting points that will inevitably change and evolve as you learn more information.
A big part of negotiation, and interviewing more broadly, is to begin by listening, validating someone’s concerns and emotions, and building the trust and safety that allows for real conversations. The following are a few tactics that help establish trust.
One of the most important tools in conducting an interview is timing. If you’re talking quickly & in too much of a hurry, people can feel as if they’re not being heard and you risk undermining the rapport and trust you’re building.
In podcasting especially being silent is a truism. Without creating long even awkward stretches of silence you don’t create space for a person to go deeper, self-reflect, and even volunteer gems they may not have intended to share.
Tone & Affect
Your voice is an instrument that can be used to build trust. Voss mentions 3 types of voices that can be used interchangeably to elicit different reactions at different times.
A positive/playful voice: this is your default voice. It’s easy-going and good-natured. Your attitude is light and encouraging.
Late-night FM DJ voice: this should be used selectively to make a point. It has a downward inflection, is calm and slow. It creates an aura of authority and trustworthiness when seeking to calm someone down.
A direct/assertive voice: use rarely. Will cause problems.
It’s easy to see that when an interview goes off the rails, or someone just gets defensive, changing your approach from positive/playful to calming late night DJ can help put an interview back on track.
This technique helps create empathy. by repeating the last three words (or critical one to three words) of what someone just said, you help comfort the other person and encourage them to bond with you. This is a surprisingly effective technique that also encourages the other person to keep talking.
Finally, by focusing on the feelings and mindset driving feelings, you can increase your ability to influence the trajectory of a conversation. This involves closely and consciously observing a person’s face, gestures, and tone of voice, so that your brain naturally begins to align with theirs in a process called neural resonance.
These rapport-building tactics may seem artificial, but many of us do them already, just unconsciously. By naming these techniques, you’re better able to deploy them at times when an interview doesn’t seem to be getting into interesting territory. When you have a guest or user, for example, who has a scripted or even defensive mode of responding, it helps to find ways to understand what’s motivating them.2
When it comes to actually conducting the interview, there are certain questions and labels that help guide an interview towards more robust, informative answers.
Labeling is a way of validating an emotion by acknowledging it. While this is clearly important in negotiation when someone is getting frustrated or tense, for example, it is just as critical when you notice that a question might have made an interviewee uncomfortable. In fact, exposing a negative thought actually makes it less frightening to an interviewee (eg. "It sounds like this was an embarrassing situation for you). The steps for labelling include:
First, detect the interviewee’s emotional state by looking at changes in voice or reactions to your questions that create a change in their demeanor.
Next, once you’ve spotted an emotion you want to highlight, say it out loud as either a statement or question. Labels often begin with the following phrases:
“It seems like…”
“It looks like…”
“It sounds like…”
If this label is incorrect, you can easily course correct by saying “I didn’t say that was what it was. I just said it seems like that.”
Finally, be silent, because the power of a label is that it invites the other person to reflect and reveal their own feelings.
While labelling may seem awkward, it actually is highly effective in opening up a conversation into deeper territory. It lets you reinforce a good aspect of the interview, or diffuse a negative one.
The next tool is asking calibrated questions. These are not questions that tend to lead to yes or no. Nor do they often start with “why” as it’s very easy to react defensively in response to a why question (eg. why didn’t you do this this way, why did you decide to start a business are all fundamentally accusatory). Rather, calibrated questions most often are rephrased in terms of “what” and “how.” Some examples include:
What about this is important to you?
How can I help make this better for us?
How would you like me to proceed?
How can we solve this problem?
What are we trying to accomplish here?
“What” and “how” makes the interviewee feel in control. They are questions that lend themselves to an interviewee offering solutions and reflections rather than feeling put on the spot or accused. They also open up more robust conversations, given that they can’t be answered with a yes or no 3
If you put any of these tactics into play the next time you’re interviewing someone, let me know! I’m trying them out in this week’s podcast recording session, and I’d love to compare notes.
And as always, if you’ve enjoyed what you read, please share this newsletter or leave a comment as I continue to explore and refine topics that resonate with you folks!
Have a great week!
P.s. You may have noticed, this newsletter will come out biweekly on Thursdays while the podcast comes biweekly on Tuesdays. Thanks for following along on my content creation journey!
Voss, Chris. Chris Voss Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It Paperback. Generic, 2021. p. 17-18, 32, 40-44
Voss, Chris. Chris Voss Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It Paperback. Generic, 2021. p. 28-38
Voss, Chris. Chris Voss Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It Paperback. Generic, 2021. p. 43-48, 119-122, 160-164