Discard Your Power For More Accurate Interviews

All sorts of different situations require you to get information out of someone. Some of these situations are less comfortable that others, and can be complicated by power dynamics. But according to one of the best interrogators the US has ever produced, it's most effective to completely throw that power out the window.

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This tip comes from an odd source, one Major Sherwood F. Moran of the US Marine Corps, who is regarded as one of the best interrogators of World War 2. Or as he would put it, "interviewer". His comments on interviewing have been thrust into relevancy with the partial release of the CIA torture report. Forget about torture, though -- Moran doesn't even think much of power in an interview situation. And this is a guy who knows a thing or two about getting information.

The fact that he calls himself an "interviewer" is at the core of how Moran conducted his interviews. One of the most important things, he says, is facilitating an environment where the interviewee does not feel threatened. This is coming from a Major in the US Marine Corps, during wartime, so if a threatening environment isn't conducive to your goals there, it probably isn't in your office.

An intimidating or threatening environment can lead to false information. Whether you're asking someone what their biggest weakness is during an interview, quizzing someone on their view of a touchy or controversial subject, or perhaps confronting someone about not telling the truth. If your goal is "any information, by any means necessary", you'll get false information. It's much more productive to figure out how to create a rapport, break the ice, and have a pleasant back-and-forth in which you casually get the information you need.

According to Moran:

One of our interpreters at a certain base was told that, when a prisoner is to be interviewed, he should be marched in, with military personnel on either side of him; the national flag of the conqueror should be on display, to give the prisoner a sense of the dignity and majesty of the conqueror's country, and that he should stand at attention, etc. In this atmosphere the interpreter, according to instructions, attempted to interrogate the prisoner. The prisoner replied courteously but firmly, "I am a citizen of Japan. As such I will tell you anything you wish to know about my own personal life and the like, but I cannot tell you anything about military matters."
In other words, he was made so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy Intelligence, that they played right into his hands! Well, that was zero in results. But later this same interpreter took this prisoner and talked with him in a friendly and informal manner, giving him cigarettes and some tea or coffee, with the result that he opened up perfectly naturally and told everything that was wanted, so far as his intelligence and knowledge made information available.

Sound familiar? Anyone who's been in the workforce for a while has had a boss that enjoys his or her "power plays", having read some silly book about Sun Tzu and Management, thinking employees will respect them if you sit in a higher chair.

He continues:

Notice that in the first part of this paragraph I used the word "safe". That is the point; get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows there is no hope of escape, that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being, (ningen to shite). And they respond to this.

Even when he has the utmost power over his interviewee, he throws it away. Why? Because it doesn't yield results.

Moran also uses many techniques a journalist would use. Asking a few throwaway questions first, and taking care to never ask questions with "yes" or "no" answers. Don't ask "Did you come in a warship?" Ask, "What kind of ship did you come on?"

But most important, according to Moran, is not the actual substance of your interview. It's your attitude. And not paying attention to this facet will put your interviewee on the defensive, causing a possibly uncomfortable situation and at worst, only providing false information.

There's a long memo by Moran at the bottom of this post.


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