Many times have I interviewed accounting personnel and walked away thinking, “I have no idea what they just said to me.”
In my early years–fresh out of college–I had the same thoughts but with additional commentary: “I must be dense. It’s obvious, he understands what he just told me, but I don’t.” Often my anxiety would increase when I realized the interviewee (e.g, accounts payable clerk) had much less education than me.
Reasons We Don’t Understand
After years of performing interviews, I realized that I wasn’t dense (at least not as much as I thought), and that I was encountering, what The Art of Explanation calls, the “curse of knowledge.”
What is the “curse of knowledge?” It’s when someone knows a subject very well, and, consequently, has a difficult time imagining what it is like to not know it. I was experiencing the “curse of knowledge” – those I interviewed believed I already knew what they knew. As a result, they unintentionally left out details.
Also, those I interviewed often had years of experience doing the same job day after day. Of course they understood what they did. But I had less than an hour, in many cases, to grasp all the nuances of what they had learned over many years.
Additionally, those I interviewed used a language unique to their office, and I, mistakenly, tried to use a different language – one I had learned in college. The result: the ying and the yang did not jibe. So how can I right the cosmos?
Four Keys to Interviewing
1. Pay attention to their language and use it.
If they call it a thingy, then I call it as a thingy.
2. Seek understanding more than trying to impress.
I often want to impress more than I desire to understand. The remedy: Admit (maybe even out loud) I don’t know everything.
I tell the clerk, “Treat me like I don’t know anything. I’ve never been here, so I need your help in understanding how you do your job.”
To higher level personnel (e.g., CFO), I might say, “I have worked in this industry for fifteen years, but I need your help to understand how you guys operate.”
3. Repeat what is said to you.
For example, “May I repeat what you just said to make sure I understand? ‘The thingy is created once per week on Mondays to ensure that total receipts agree with deposits.’”
4. Use your cell phone to take pictures and to record parts of the interview.
Just last week, I reviewed a complex accounting system (for about three hours). As I did so, I used my cell phone Evernote app to take pictures of computer screens and printed reports and to record parts of the conversation. Later I summarized the conversation in memo form (complete with pictures).
The use of electronic devices (e.g., camera or recording device) is a judgment call. Yes, you do want to understand, but some clients may find electronic devices intrusive.
Your Interviewing Ideas
Have I left out any key ideas about interviewing? Please share your thoughts.