Interviewing and the art of conversation

This morning I was thinking about Friday’s Open Mic. Since I don’t have a guest post scheduled, I’ll host a discussion centered on one creativity/art-related question, as we brainstormed last week. If we were having a formal discussion, like a panel, the first thing we’d do is go around and introduce all the contributors; I think that would still be fun in an informal online forum like this one. After all, it’s always nice to get a sense of who you’re talking to, and in blog comments that’s not always easy to do. So this week I wanted to present questions whose answers would give you all a chance to introduce yourselves, in whatever fashion you like. And I wanted the questions to get at the introductions indirectly; we’re all so used to the usual questions of “what do you do?” that we tend to answer them in a pat, formulaic way that really says nothing about who we are.

I came up with two questions and ran them by Erik. He had trouble answering the first, and when I tried the second on him, he squirmed and responded with short answers that told me nothing. When further pressed, he gave a frustrated outburst about the difficulty of representing his work verbally because it’s nonverbal and he thinks about it nonverbally. His outburst was much more interesting than anything else I’d elicited up to that point. He went on to say that he hates being misrepresented, and he feels that he gets that a lot. This is true. Erik is a fairly quiet person with myriad talents, and though his actions speak louder than his words, the way people interpret that “speech” isn’t always the way he would describe himself.

“I think,” I said, “the way you feel about being interviewed is the way a lot of women feel about negotiating.” Last week I read the amazing book Women Don’t Ask, which is about women’s feelings of powerlessness and discomfort in situations where they have to ask for things. One of the blocks women have about negotiating is that they feel like they just don’t have the inborn talents required: “I’m not aggressive,” “I don’t feel confident,” and so forth. Negotiation skills can be learned, and it’s the same for interviewing (and creativity, and lots else). I remember a piece of advice I read years ago in Real Simple, about how to respond to questions we don’t know the answer to. It said the key to fielding these questions is to turn them around to something we can and do want to talk about. Politicians do this all the time: “Well now, I don’t feel that’s the most important question at the moment. But you know what is an interesting question? [Insert talking point here.]” Of course politicians’ motives are less than admirable, but we can borrow their tactic for good. In an interview (or even in a conversation), when someone asks you a question, they’re trying to get an interesting answer, not a textbook entry: “What do you do?” is a conversational opening, not a solicitation of facts. (Which is why I rarely ask that question, because most people don’t answer it in an interesting way.) So when your answer is, “Oh, bleh, well, it’s complicated,” then you thwart the both of you. You feel bored and awkward, and your questioner has to try again with a different topic. It’s a give and take that is not only up to the questioner. Yes, she does have to make her questions as scintillating as possible, but you also have ownership of the exchange; you can offer interesting answers even when the questions are dull. And, if you don’t wish to be misrepresented, it’s your responsibility to give compelling answers, because if you don’t, your interviewer may misquote you (or your conversation partner will excuse himself to “get a drink,” and never return).

Talking about ourselves is an art, and one I have surely not mastered, but luckily for me I (mostly) enjoy it. Writing this post has inspired me to try more interesting questions next time I meet strangers, in hopes of generating better conversations for everyone. I hope it also inspires you to share your stories (even if you don’t like the questions) when Friday comes around!