What skilled journalists know about getting tough subjects to talk could prove useful in your living room. Seth Kugel, a New York Times contributor who teaches an interviewing class at NYU, offers a few tricks to try on the monosyllabic male of your choice.
Women have a tough time getting men to open up. If reporters had as much trouble getting interviewees to talk, there'd be a lot more headlines like "Scientist Discovers Miracle Cancer Cure, Categorizes Day As 'Fine, How Was Yours?'"
Reporters try to elicit fresh information, personal perspectives, and telling anecdotes from our subjects. That's not so different from what women look for when they approach their husbands or boyfriends about dicey topics like money, commitment, or why he insists on leaving the wet towel on the bed, not to mention the less dicey but equally elusive ones such as what happened at work that day. But reporters' methods are different: We try to remain impartial, we avoid becoming emotionally involved, and we focus on asking questions that will make the subject confident, trusting, and at ease. The questions women ask men, by contrast, often leave us somewhere between uncomfortable and queasy. Pretty soon we sense the attack coming and move into defense mode. When you go after our inner thoughts through a heavily fortified front gate, you've got zero chance of finding out what's really going on—or, God forbid, how we feel about it.
Take the perennially ineffective "What are you thinking?" It's an honest, legitimate question that is doomed to failure. It turns men into nervous liars, because we're essentially thinking about nothing. Or sex. Or a baseball highlight. Might as well ask Dick Cheney where the undisclosed location is.
When I get that question (and it's usually in bed), here's what I do: First I think up something complimentary—How nice it is to be here with you, perhaps. Then I ask myself if it's too sappy to be believed. If so, I revise. Finally, I let it fly and hope she hasn't planted a polygraph in my pillow.
Here are some secrets to a successful interview, which may also help women get their men to let down their guards and spill their guts.
Choose the right time.
A reporter looking for person-on-the-street interviews in, say, New York will have little luck with commuters rushing out of the Times Square subway station at 8:57 on a Monday morning. But those same people sunning themselves in the park during lunch hour will talk your ear off. So even if something has been bothering you, don't slam a man with it when he gets home from work; try a lazy Sunday afternoon (not during football season).
Pick the right place.
Susan Shapiro, a fellow journalism teacher at New York University and the author of Five Men Who Broke My Heart , told me that she knew to meet interview subjects on their home turf (an athlete in a sports bar, for example), because it let them feel they were in control. Yet she didn't do the same with the men in her life. Now she has learned to butter up her husband for a big talk. "Even though I prefer sushi," she said, "if we go to his favorite Tex-Mex place, he's going to be happier." And more receptive.
Prepare unexpected questions...and shut up
Connect before you attack.
No one likes being blindsided. Breezy chatter comes first, getting his brain and vocal chords warmed up. Reporters look desperately for any way to connect with strangers: a question about that framed family photo, a discovered mutual opera obsession, or in the worst-case scenario, the weather. You have an advantage: You already know what he likes to talk about. Start there. Compliments can work wonders, too, says Tim Mohr, an editor at Playboy , a magazine known for its interviews. But calibrate carefully. "Sometimes you really suck up to an interviewee," he says, "but in a relationship situation, you'd run the risk of making someone suspicious."
Prepare unexpected questions.
Reporters know that big shots always get asked the same questions and have stock answers. You don't ask a young actor, "What was it like working with Jack Nicholson?" (Answer: "Unbelievable. Greatest experience of my life; he's wonderful."). A better idea: "What did you talk to Jack Nicholson about today?" or "What does he eat on the set?" So for you, "How was your day?" is out; "What did your annoying colleague Clyde say today?" is in.
Ask open-ended questions.
Queries that allow yes-or-no or quick answers get yes-or-no or quick answers. The worst question in the history of journalism is: "Did you have a happy childhood?" Much better: "Tell me about growing up in Cincinnati in the 1960s." Similarly, you don't want to ask cutesy questions: "If you could look into the crystal ball of our relationship, when would you see us moving in together?" That puts lots of pressure on him to come up with the right answer, and there's no chance of finding out what he's really thinking. Better: the less-threatening but harder-to-squirm-out-of "What needs to happen before you feel ready to take the next step?"
Reporters who listen to tapes of their own interviews often realize they talk too much. Keep your questions sharp and precise, and if you don't get an immediate response, don't rush to end an uncomfortable silence by rephrasing the question. Whether you're talking to interviewees or your male partners, let them think. Or sweat. And even though they've given an answer, any answer, you don't have to move on. Try a nonquestion follow-up. Particularly effective are "Mm-hmm" or "Wow! Tell me more," followed by more silence. You just wait; they'll talk.
Don't be argumentative.
Reporters are impartial observers of the story, not active participants in it. This is a huge advantage that you can't replicate at home. But you can make every effort to play it cool. No matter how outrageous his response, probe further, call bluffs, but don't fight. Say "That's so interesting. I wouldn't have thought of it that way—please go on." After a bit of prodding, he may start to make sense. There's a method to everyone's madness, and reporters decode it by staying objective and letting our subjects talk. It works. And we talk to people crazier than your man all the time.
Selectively ignore these rules.
There are times to pepper him with yes-or-no questions, times to argue, times to use otherwise prohibited phrases. For example, if your husband blows his Christmas bonus on a Harley-Davidson and skydiving lessons, it's finally appropriate to say, "What are you thinking?"
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Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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