More than once, I’ve had to face “arms-crossed” guy. You may know him (or her) too—the client interviewee whose body language flashes, “I don’t have time for this. I’m not interested. Do we have to do this?” Since reluctant clients often play an important part in piecing together a project, it’s essential to break through the negativity.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, “arms-crossed” guy won’t budge. But if you need that person’s help, you’ve got to try. Here are a few tips for coaxing information from an unwilling interviewee.
If there’s no apparent threat or risk, “arms-crossed” guy may warm up. So start your conversation with the basics. Normally, though, this guy could care less what you think about the plaque on the wall honoring his community contribution seven years ago. Don’t go there.
Instead, begin by stating exactly what you want to learn, who sent you, and how you plan to use the information. Also, confirm how long the meeting will last. You’d probably do this introduction with any interviewee, but it’s critical with semi-hostiles.
Then launch into easy, factual questions, for example, “How many people do you manage?” “How has your business (or function) grown, and who are your best customers?” The point: Start without controversy, show that you listen, care, and have credibility.
Plus, resist the urge to respond to snide comments about the project, your role, or anything else that gets lobbed at you. Once you take that bait, you’ve lost the possibility of turning a bad interview into something useful.
You might be able to pierce the wall of resistance by letting a reluctant interviewee talk. Simple, fact-based questions offer the interviewee an opportunity to thaw. Allow time for an interviewee to expand on answers by pausing for several seconds after each response before you dive into the next question.
Define Your Must-Haves
If your interview isn’t going well and there’s little hope of turning it around, check your interview notes. Identify the essential information you must have from this individual. Usually, you’ll have options for finding what you need elsewhere. Still, zero in on what only this person can give you and ask away.
Keep a brisk pace as you move through your questions, but don’t leave the impression that you’re writing off the interview. Treat the reluctant interviewee as an important part of your process, no matter how hard that is.
Get Closer to the Issue
Once you’ve finished an interview, you’ll need to confirm whatever you learned. Find others who can flesh out your information, interpret what you know, and point you to others who can help. When you’re rebuffed by an interviewee, get closer to the problem. Find people who are directly affected by the issue and seek out their opinions.
No matter how much “arms-crossed” guy resists, you’ve got to stay above the fray. Don’t complain about him to others in the client’s organization—chances are they already know about the attitude. And don’t avoid him in the future. Who knows—“arms-crossed” guy might turn out to be your best ally; treat him well and keep chipping away.