The Interrogation Principle

Dog under interrogation.Every once in awhile we are thrown totally off guard by what someone says to us. If we can remember what I call the “Interrogation Principle,” we can regain our composure, buy ourselves a few moments of time, and respond in a way that advances our goals.

I recently sat in the office of a senior leader at a large, well-known international foundation. Foundation management was interested in hiring a consultant to help them plan a grantmaking program, and I had traveled at my own expense to learn about their objectives and determine whether I might be the right fit.

This particular woman was not into niceties and jumped right into the discussion. Early in the conversation she asked me to “describe a time when you interrogated someone.” I was completely thrown off guard. “Interrogation” conjures up images in my mind of waterboarding and other methods of torture. My firm conducts hundreds of phone and in-person interviews each year, and I pride myself on ensuring that those experiences are enjoyable and enlightening, not only for my team but for the people interviewed. I simply had no answer to her question, and no idea why she asked it. It made no sense, and it threw me off my game. I stammered out some answer that I cannot recall. Not surprisingly, I did not get the project.

Did this woman harbor a secret desire to serve in the CIA? Had she experienced a series of such excruciatingly painful interviews that she could only associate them with interrogations? Was the question benign, and she simply made an inappropriate word choice? I have no idea and I am sure I will never know. But I suspect she was trying to throw me off my game, and I failed the test.

But now, armed with my Interrogation Principle, I know how to respond. And the response is quite simple: Turn the question back on the questioner. If that doesn’t work, answer your own question. Essentially, don’t let them get away with it.

What I should have said was:

“Oh, that’s an interesting question. Tell me what you mean by ‘interrogation.'”

With this I would have a) bought myself a little time, b) maintained (or acquired) control of the conversation, and c) and possibly have learned enough to answer the question.

If the person refuses to answer your question (“I mean just that, interrogation”), don’t answer it. Refuse to get in their cage. It’s like when you’re coached for a media interview: Be clear on what information you want to convey. You don’t need to answer the journalist’s question, you just need to respond in a way that conveys your points.

I could have responded with, “Well, ‘interrogation’ makes me think of torture, and we don’t torture our clients or the people we work with. Instead, we strive to provide excellent customer service. We bring tremendous experience in conducting qualitative interviews to inform our clients’ strategies . . . ” and so on, naming every strength you want to highlight.

So remember, the next time you find yourself hit over the head by a question you don’t know how to answer, fall back on the Interrogation Principle. With a little practice (yes, try it at home), it becomes a fairly simple step to turn the discussion back on the interviewer — or politely swing the conversation around to your own great qualities. Either way, you can buy yourself a moment to regain your composure and turn the conversation your way.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

© Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2014.

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