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The Psychology of Interviewing

An interview with Michael Krasny

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We’re all interviewers: whether asking your housemate about his or her day, querying a first date to see if there should be a second, vetting a prospective employer, or trying to understand a customer’s needs or ideological adversary’s position.

Done well, interviewing requires a measure of psychology. To unearth some of that, yesterday, I interviewed top interviewer, Michael Krasny. He is in his 21st year as host of the #1 most-listened-to, locally produced public radio program in America: Forum on KQED-FM in San Francisco. He and the program have received innumerable awards and his guests have included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Robert Redford, John Updike, Desmond Tutu, Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and five interviews of Jimmy Carter. Krasny also is the author of  Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life.

Marty Nemko: Is there anything psychological about what you do to convince eminents to come on your program?

Michael Krasny: Yes. For example, there’s the bandwagon principle: We want to get on bandwagons we see as desirable. So, if I’m trying to get a head of state on the program, my producer or I would mention, for example, that Obama, Carter, and both Clintons have appeared on the show. In our daily lives, when we’re trying to influence others to do something, it’s often helpful to cite others that have done it. Robert Cialdini, who has advised President Obama on messaging, calls that “social proof.”

MN:  If a guest appears nervous, what do you do?

MK:  It can be helpful to acknowledge the elephant in the room, perhaps doing it with humor. For example, I might say, “There’s nothing to be nervous about—there are only 70,000 people listening.” Paradoxically, that has relaxed guests. Or I’ll simply be sincere, for example, “You are among friends here. I’m here to make you comfortable. This isn’t a satanic den.”

MN:  I’d guess that acknowledging a guest’s nervousness, even on the air, sends the message that emotion is okay in the interview and, in turn, gets the guest to open up more.

MK:  Right. For example, I recall my interview with Billy Dee Williams. He was extremely non-communicative, beyond anything I had experienced. I said, “You seem to be reticent. I expected you’d be more talkative. Is your mind somewhere else?” He said, “My mom died recently.” I then asked, “What would you want us to know about her?” And that moved the interview from arid to rich.

MN:  Of course, your job isn’t just to make guests feel comfortable. After doing that, you want to ask probing questions. How do you do that without making the guest so uncomfortable that s/he clams up?

MK:  I give them the opportunity to present their narrative, ideally without much interruption. After that, they feel heard and then are more likely to provide non-evasive answers to probing questions.

MN:  When asking a challenging question, how do you keep from appearing so oppositional that the guest retreats into prepackaged, sterile, sound bites?

MK:  Sometimes, I make clear that my probing question is based, not necessarily on my antipathy to their position, but reflecting a widely held contention. For example, I might say, “Some people (perhaps inserting a specific person) would say (insert the challenging assertion.) How would you respond?”

MN:  So it’s critical for you to do a lot of homework in preparing for the show so you know the major objections to their positions and can attribute them to credible others.

MK:  That’s true. If anything, I overprepare.

MN:  How do you deal with having a strong emotional reaction to what a guest says?

MK:  I recall a pro-Palestinian guest claiming that the Israelis were committing genocide. I had to take a deep breath. I know that the San Francisco public radio listenership has very strong feelings on the issue. So, to air my disagreement without being unnecessarily inflammatory, I said something like, “Genocide is an attempt to eliminate an entire people. Build settlements and perhaps occupy but not kill off an entire race of people.”

MN:  Some liberal listeners give you flak for even occasionally putting a conservative on the air. How do you deal with that?

MK:  That’s true even if I put someone eminent from Stanford/Hoover and a liberal. It’s just something you have to deal with. My goal is to bring light, even if it’s dark refracted light. Liberals claim to celebrate diversity yet ironically, often call for censorship of ideas they don’t like. I have to have the strength to resist that. The Left doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas. Besides, shouldn’t the Left or Liberals want to hear those they oppose to learn what they think?  Doesn’t that help liberals buttress their positions?”

MN:  All people have ups and downs. Is it difficult to always be up when it’s show time?

MK:  I can be up or down but the show must go on and my demons can be, as Rilke said, my angels, and spur me on, even making be a better interviewer.  Once I’m on the air, I am “on,” in that zone of performance. Neurosis can serve and the onus of time can seem nearly non-existent. I used to use a boilerplate line: Nothing goes faster than good radio except possibly good sex.

MN:  Even some superstars don’t find that a cool career trumps—to wit, Robin Williams.

MK:  Right.

MN:  Anything else you’d like the readers of PsychologyToday.com to know about the psychology of interviewing?

MK:  Interviewing is important: It’s a key component of communication, of learning people’s stories, of building relationships, and of personal growth. Alas, interviewing isn’t so easy. It requires great curiosity, which only some people seem to possess. It also requires you to be in learning mode: willing to listen more than talk and to really hear what people are saying. Those can be developed.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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