In honor of President’s Day (still officially known as Washington’s Birthday) a few thoughts about interviewing.

There are so many more facts about ourselves that are in our heads (or the heads of people we know) than there are in databases and court cases. Many times, to get as much as the truth as we need, we are forced to do interviews.

To see this for yourself, Google yourself. How much of what you know about your and your history will you find there? Perhaps one percent, perhaps less. If someone wants to find out where you went to elementary school, who your friends are, who you dated before marrying, where you worked (but didn’t include on your resume), they would have to ask people.

Sharpen Your Axe Before Taking a Swing

An apocryphal quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln was, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” This well summarizes my approach to doing an interview. You will not know the right questions to ask until you have done your research.  My sharp axe is the knowledge that Mr. X had a couple of companies his wife didn’t know about. You can’t ask his former colleagues about these companies if you don’t know they exist and are linked to Mr. X. You can’t know all of this unless you do research before picking up the phone.

While preparation is key, so is humility. The well-known rule among litigators “Never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer” may be fine for court or depositions, but that kind of questioning is not the best course of action for a fact investigator. Because we know so much less than we think, over-preparing to the point of anticipating answers will make an interviewer less alert to any surprises that may emerge. Just as we take a fresh approach to each person when we do a public-records check, we need to keep in mind those public records when we start our interview yet be fully aware that the public record is at best a rough abstraction of someone’s life.

Humility Gets Results

George Washington said that “honesty is always the best policy,” and this blog has written for years about the ethical strictures the allow lawyers to “dissemble” but not to tell lies. You can’t pretend to be a police officer (by statute), but the rules of professional responsibility mean you can’t pretend to be a New York Times reporter when you are not.

Still, it is not dishonest if you fail to interrupt someone who is telling something you already know. Listening to something you think you already know is useful for two reasons:

  1. When you let people speak, they become comfortable talking to you. Cut them off and they will let may wait for you to lead them.
  2. They may be about to tell you something you didn’t know. They could start out talking about Mr. Jones, and you think you know all there is to know about Mr. Jones, who is not even the person you are investigating. You care more about Mr. Smith. But then, 30 seconds later the person you’re interviewing tells you that Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith had a terrible disagreement, almost came to blows, and sued one another in small claims court three years ago. If you had interrupted too early, you would have missed all that. You also now get to find Mr. Jones and interview him too.

Checking your ego at the door is therefore to be recommended not just during interviews, but in general. Ronald Reagan said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

But the best presidential remark relating to interviewing came from Lyndon Johnson: “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.”