Establishing Trust & Rapport

Take Your Time

That’s one of the most important pieces of advice I can give to inexperienced interviewers.

I remember many times at Ryerson University (where I taught in its excellent journalism department for two decades) when a student would come by to interview me and jump into the interview far too quickly. (What I’m about to say was echoed by other profs.)

The student would enter my office, take out a tape recorder, mumble something about an assignment and almost immediately start to ask questions.

I would invariably say the following: “Whoa! Slow down. Who are you? What do you want? What is this interview for? What’s your focus?” And other similar reactions.

When there is time (and there usually is), an interviewer needs to establish what can generally be referred to as trust and rapport with the interviewee (as much as possible, based on time, the person’s disposition, subject matter, etc.) before the actual interview begins.

Do not confuse this with liking or being liked. It’s great if those reactions occur but they are not your goal. In fact, if you have a need to be liked by people (especially interviewees), that dependency can often lead to interviews that are not successful.

Needing to be liked invariably inhibits an interviewer’s willingness to ask an interviewee a tough, difficult, awkward or otherwise challenging question.

What’s it Like to be Interviewed?

The most important consideration for the interviewer is to understand what it’s like to be the interviewee.

Imagine a stranger (most interviewees don’t know the interviewer) approaches you and wants to probe you on certain important matters.

Would you immediately open up to that person? Would you let your guard down as a matter of course?

Not many interviewees would react this way.

What thoughts might be going through an interviewee’s mind, both consciously and subconsciously?

Here’s a possible, but not definitive, list:

1) What exactly does the person want from me?

2) Where will the interview be used (does the interviewee actually know what publication/website/broadcast program) the interview is for? Does the interviewee know anything about the demographics of the intended market?

3) What if I say the wrong thing?

4) What if what I say gets me in trouble (fired, ridiculed, punished, etc.)?

5) What if my peers think I’ve dumbed down the information (an especial concern for scientists and other learned professionals)?

6) What if I’m inarticulate, too nervous, etc. (an especial concern for broadcast interviews)?

7) What if I don’t know an answer?

8) What if the interviewer is very aggressive and intimidates me?

9) What if the interviewer has already made up their mind and doesn’t really care what I have to say?

10) What if I don’t have the time and/or opportunity to say what I need/want to say?

And so on.

When these concerns (or, at least, some of them) are combined with any trepidation the interviewer might have (which I will address at another time), the result can be an interview that doesn’t come close to achieving its potential.

Find Topics to Discuss Together

The goal of an interview, typically, is to get the interviewee to reveal information and/or emotional responses to something important. So how does a stranger-interviewer accomplish that goal?

It begins with the initial interactions that all of us undergo when we meet a new (or familiar) person. We don’t just jump into the most important objectives of our interaction off the bat.

We need to spend some time with the person discussing matters that don’t appear to be related to the interview. For example, if I meet an interviewee in his office, I will look around and see if there’s anything I can (genuinely) talk to the person about.

During the exchange, I get a chance to observe how the person is acting. I’m much on the lookout for overt nervousness, hostility, defensiveness, a need to control me, etc.

The interviewee, BTW, is also doing this with me, although perhaps not as consciously. In a sense, we are both sniffing each other out.

My objective (beyond observing the interviewee’s disposition) is to demonstrate that I am an open, fair and reasonable person. I do this no matter the likely tone of the interview. Even if I expect to ask some difficult questions, I am going to conduct the interview in as professional, polite and calm a way as possible.

Most times, though, the establishing of trust and rapport serves primarily to get both of us into a relaxed state so we can switch from that initial conversation to the actual purpose of the interview.

A word is needed, however, for those doing print features. If I’m working on a magazine story, for example, I will look around a person’s space to see if there’s anything I can use in my article. What art is on the walls? Photographs on the desk? Sports trophies. Anything that might illustrate (or counterpoint) the subject’s personality.

To repeat from my first blog: this is never chitchat for me. Everything I do and say and ask has a purpose.

One time I met a fairly conservative businessman in his office. I saw an amazing, abstract piece of art on the wall behind his desk. It did not seem like the kind of art he would purchase. I told him I really liked it (which was true) and asked about it. “My daughter painted that,” he said, proudly. “There are some other works by her on the walls. Would you like to see them?”

I eagerly agreed. We did a tour. The art was impressive.

By the time we returned to his office, the connection between us was much more intimate than when we had first met. We had a great conversation.

Is there a common ground you can discuss prior to the actual interview starting?

Years ago, I was asked by CBC Radio’s Morningside to interview Robert Stanfield for his memories about the implantation of the War Measures Act in 1970. It was for a major documentary commemorating the imposition of the act 10 years earlier.

Stanfield had been the leader of the opposition Conservative party when Pierre Trudeau suspended all civil liberties in the country in response to terrorist acts by the Front de libération du Québec.

I had never met the amiable Stanfield, who had just retired from politics. I went to his home in Ottawa with one goal: get a minute or two of tape about his thoughts a decade ago.

As a freelancer, time and money are much related. But I didn’t just get to my questions right away and dart off as fast as I could.

He offered me tea and cookies. I accepted.

We found a common topic: we chatted about Nova Scotia, his home province. I told him my father, a Glaswegian who had brought our family to Canada in 1957, was self-taught in Gaelic, a language still spoken in some isolated parts of Nova Scotia at the time.

He seemed genuinely interested in my dad and his attempts to keep the dying language alive.

After about 15 minutes of conversation, I felt we were in a positive, connected state. It was time to turn on the tape recorder.

Again, I didn’t rush to the most important questions.

I began by asking him about his memories of Quebec in the 1950s as what would become known as the Quiet Revolution began to take shape, then the 60s (and asked his thoughts on some terrorist events that took place then). By the time we got to October 1970, his memory was in full bloom. The tape I took away of his perceptions of that pivotal Canadian event was excellent.

Would I have accomplished the same without the long prelude? I have no idea. I just wouldn’t want to have risked it unless his timing was so restrictive he didn’t have time for any preliminaries.

In my next blog, I will continue to discuss trust and rapport.