When I became a full-time freelancer more than a decade ago, it wasn’t long before I realized that many of the tactics I found most effective in drawing out interviewees were not unlike those a counselor had used with me during a stint in talk therapy. Curious, I did a little experimentation and soon learned that psychoanalytic methods can, in fact, improve the way we approach the interviewing process—and can help our sources come to life and really open up, too. With that in mind, here are 10 ways thinking like a therapist can lead to both better interviews and better stories.
#1 Keeping accurate records:
Many patients take comfort in the fact that their therapists take copious notes during sessions and refer to them throughout the course of therapy. But not all writers grant their subjects the same courtesy. Dr. David D. Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook and other books, says he has been misquoted so many times he’s become reluctant to grant interviews. “I’ve been interviewed for hundreds of magazine articles, and they come out incredibly goofy about 90 percent of the time,” he says. Burns encourages all writers to record their interviews. Laws vary by state, but let your subjects know you’re recording the conversation—doing so will protect both them and you should any questions arise later.
#2 Putting the client at ease:
First-time therapy clients—and interviewees—tend to be a bit nervous before their initial sessions. But calming their fears can be as easy as asking them a few innocuous questions first, says Barton Goldsmith, a California psychoanalyst and author. “Everyone loves to talk about themselves,” he notes. “The No. 1 way to draw people out is to give them room to do that.”
Another way to defuse tension is to reveal something about yourself—“something perhaps a little self-deprecating,” Goldsmith says. “I like to say that I began my career in psychology after my professional basketball career was cut short when I grew to only five-foot-six. If you give someone permission to laugh, you also give them permission to open up in other areas. So if you really want depth, get them comfortable.”
#4 Actively listening:
In both phone interviews and face-to-face chats, avoid the temptation to half-listen and think ahead to what you’re going to ask next. Instead, pay close attention. “It’s probably the most important thing,” Goldsmith says. When responding, paraphrasing what your source just said in slightly different language shows that you’re listening and understand what was shared. Ask follow-up questions when appropriate. “It’s called consolidating the game,” Goldsmith says. “People open up more to you when they know you’re really listening—and it’s also a good way to make sure you have all your facts straight.”
#5 Allowing a few seconds of silence:
At times, an interviewee may not have fully processed a thought until it comes out during the interview. Immediately jumping ahead to the next question might deprive both you and the subject of a deeper insight into the topic. “You have to give people space,” Goldsmith says. “It takes some time to go from your head to your heart, and you want to give your client that time to feel.”
#6 Showing genuine interest:
If you’re talking to a subject about pork-belly futures, it can be difficult to get invested in the interview. But even the most mundane topics usually contain some grain of interest. If you can find it, the interviewee will sense that and feel like more of a partner in the process. “If you’re not really interested, that’s going to come across to the other person,” says Allan Bloom, a psychotherapist in Raleigh, N.C. “Almost anything is interesting when you really get into it.”
#7 Banishing assumptions:
Assuming you know all the facts of a story ahead of an interview can backfire in a major way. Therapists are taught to refrain from jumping to conclusions for good reason, Bloom says. It’s best to check your assumptions about a piece at the door and give your interviewee time to let the story unfold naturally. To that end, never prewrite too much of a story in your head before you do your interviews.
#8 AVOIDING judgments:
It’s not always easy to remain neutral, especially if the person you’re talking to has done something particularly odious. But if you allow a judgmental attitude to creep in, your interview can end abruptly. “If a client reveals something objectionable, I just say, ‘Tell me more,’” Goldsmith says. “You’re asking them how they felt, not telling them how you feel about it.”
#9 Conveying empathy:
We can’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds, but when interviewing someone who has undergone a discouraging or traumatic event, using words that convey an empathetic understanding of those feelings can go a long way toward your goal of information gathering (e.g., “That must have been very upsetting” or “That certainly sounds frustrating”). Goldsmith advises sharing a similar experience, if you’ve had one, to let the person know you really empathize with the situation. It should be noted that empathy must be genuine; people quickly see through insincerity.
#10 Neutralizing an angry or critical person:
It doesn’t happen often, but eventually you’ll probably have to contend with an interviewee who’s out of sorts for one reason or another. Burns has developed a method called the “disarming technique,” which involves finding a grain of truth in the person’s argument as a way of deflecting the attack. He suggests changing the focus by acknowledging the negative emotions, and perhaps asking the person tactful questions about the reason for the attack.
As writers, we’re charged to be apt pupils of human nature—and as humans, we’re all subject to it. So it only makes sense that using psychoanalytic techniques can produce much richer interviews to inform our work. Of course, there’s one final perk for our “clients,” too—our sessions are way more affordable.