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New Intelligence eLearning

Fear of losing control: the role of fear in interviews

25 March 2014

Fear of losing control: the role of fear in interviews.

In Australia, New Intelligence has developed the PROSPECT model of interview over an 8 year period, specifically for non-law enforcement interviews, yet still occurring within very sensitive and pressurised environments.  We deliver that program – along with those others of our Human Skills Programs - nationally to most mission-critical organisations and private corporations.

I had an interesting class last week.  I was working with a dedicated and passionate group from one of our large mission-critical organisations who conduct perhaps the one interview most scrutinised in Australia.  Participants ranged from those with 5 years or more experience conducting complex interviews in harsh environments, right down to those who were brand new to the organisation and who had not yet officially conducted an interview.

At one point we were right in the middle of a very engaging and fruitful discussion about the body of the interview – the point where we solicit a version, probe, evaluate and test information.  We had spent the morning uncovering various biases and how that impacts on our thinking with some startling revelations for participants.  Now we were exploring questions.

Typically we frame this session in terms of comparison of Social Conversations with friends and loved-ones, with Professional Conversations with vulnerable and susceptible clients who may have suffered torture and trauma and with whom you have no regular intimacy or history.  This helps highlight the different skills sets in asking the right questions, appropriately targeted questions, enough questions, well-formed questions.  We also examine the different linguistic structures, but most importantly the relationship that exists between the different question types and the product you get when you use them.

About half-way through the session participants seemed to all take a collective breath as we all realised we had a central narrative running through the conversation – that of fear.  I had just written the words “Don’t be afraid to lose control” on a whiteboard. 

One participant, when asked why she thought she had a tendency to use forced-choice questions (those with an “or” in the middle:   So, was it April or May that you were taken to that place?), realised that it was because she wanted to frame the question to get the result she wanted, but make it look as though the participant was making the choice. 

Another participant, when asked why she insisted on going into leading questions, stated she got there by asking lots of closed questions and slipping down into leading.  “It lets me stay in control and guide them”, she stated.

One of the more senior interviewers then shared her opinion.  She had been conducting these interviews at a very high level for a long time.  She described her experience as having been first taught how to do it well (using an earlier evolution of the PROSPECT model), but then very quickly reverting to old, ineffective styles of questioning and control tactics. 

She then said that about 3 years into her career she finally realised the true value in the PROSPECT model and went back to it with immediate results in higher effectiveness and efficiency.  So, we stuck with the conversation and asked “Why do you think that is?”

Her response:  “I was no longer afraid to mess it up.”

As the facilitator it immediately caused me to reflect on moments when I had lost control or performed very poorly in an interview.  The reason?  Fear or losing control.

That fear can be insidious, and it can manifest itself most clearly in the biased decisions interviewers take and the form and function of the questions they ask.  Interviewers often kid themselves that they are fully listening to the client when they are really guiding them to “the most comfortable version of the truth” as seen from their perspective, and as adduced by their biased questions.

At other times they forget the overarching purpose of the interview and (especially when they get into a dangerous empathic state) attempt to give the client the clues for them to reach their desired goals for the client.

In using forced-choice and leading questions, interviewers are often actually attempting to make themselves feel better, as they are not clear on the purpose of the interview, or don’t necessarily agree with the politics of the day in the particular industry they are employed in.

An interview room is a dangerous place to be if you are afraid, and that counts for both sides of the table. 

If an interview you are conducting begins to shut down, perhaps you could ask yourself: Is it possible I am making myself safe by narrowing down the options available to clients to express themselves?  It seems reasonable to say this short-cut will be occurring, so interviewers can predict exactly where the conversation is going to go and lessen the amount of effort in writing up complex findings of fact in what is a very grey area of international law.

Our office has a saying that if you check in on the purpose of your interview before you start and you can’t personally align with it you need to resign and go work somewhere else.  Perhaps that is unfair.  Perhaps you need to declare your fear, take a deep breath, put in place strong structures, and ask really well-formed questions.  Discipline and adherence to structure under pressure will see you through. 

But it takes time, dedication and COURAGE to build the skills and put yourself on the line day after day.



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