Why You Should Never Interview Anyone
Reviving the lost art of conversation
Once upon a time, I interviewed people. I interviewed politicians, heads of state, religious leaders, and ordinary people, too. I interviewed Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani Prime Minister, who was later assassinated. I interviewed Jimmy Carter. I interviewed Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and sex workers in the Persian Gulf. No more. For the past decade, I’ve had an ironclad policy: no interviews.
I still talk to people, converse with them, but I no longer interview them. There is a world of difference, and one that is more than semantic.
An interview is transactional. The interviewer wants something from the interviewee — in my case, a compelling audio cut for one of my NPR stories. The interviewee (usually) wants something too: publicity for a cause, worthy or not, spin on a political story, or simply the frisson of hearing their voice on the radio. There’s almost always a quid pro quo, even if it remains unspoken.
An interview is often one-sided, with one party (the interviewer) lording it over another (the interviewee). The interviewer asks the questions and the interviewee answers — or, in the case of politicians, dodges — the questions. An interview smacks of aggression. A CEO interviewing a prospective employee, trying to trip them up. Detectives interviewing a person of interest. An interview is a half-step shy of an interrogation, and another half step from a full-blown inquisition. Who wants to be a part of that?
A conversation is different. A conversation involves a give and take, even if one party takes more than they give. An interview proceeds in a linear fashion, and for a set amount of time. A conversation is open-ended, and often circuitous. You might begin by talking about blooming daffodils but end up discussing the nature of good and evil. In an interview, such detours are labeled digressions and studiously avoided; in a conversation they are called little blessings and are cultivated.
When you pivot from interview to conversation, as I did, a fundamental shift occurs. People loosen up. They share experiences and feelings they haven’t shared before, or even know they possessed.