The PII Blog

Talk Less, Smile More

By Cathleen Watkins

Interviewing is a large part of our work as investigators. We frequently ask people to describe difficult or painful experiences or to share information that might cause them negative repercussions later. We might need to ask a college student about a sexual assault, or an employee about bullying by an abusive supervisor.

Given the challenges of this work, those who are new to the job often ask about the best ways to get people to open up. They want tried-and-true approaches for coaxing interviewees into being honest and forthcoming.

Journalists, biographers, therapists, and health care workers also need these tools. Parents of silent teenagers would most certainly be grateful for any proven technique to get their kids to talk.

As an investigator and someone who presents investigative trainings, I am always looking for insights about interviewing. I’ve talked with my colleagues and my friends in journalism about their approaches and techniques. I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers. I’ve attended trainings on the impacts of trauma on people and learned trauma-informed approaches to interviews.

I had mined all of the obvious sources. Then I stumbled on a gem when I wasn’t really looking for it.

The essay “Witnessing Hope,” by Stephanie Powell Watts, contained a beautifully written passage about this. Included in Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology of essays by Black female writers, Watts wrote about her past going door to door in rural North Carolina as a Jehovah’s Witness. She described herself as “a listening stranger” standing at peoples’ doors initiating conversations that quickly moved past pleasantries and into deeper territory. She wrote of giving people:

…a space just big enough for a story to leak through. So they told it. The relief of not having to harbor the story anymore showed like a lightness, a brightness on their faces.

Watts then shared a truth that many experienced investigators have learned along the way:

People are desperate to explain themselves, reveal themselves, and have another person take testimony of their experiences.

Watts’s observation was not complicated and did not involve any special tools or parlor tricks. Show up, be engaged, don’t talk very much. Be “a listening stranger.” It was that simple, and that difficult to master. Watts’s point about giving “a space just big enough for a story to leak through” takes practice and focused effort to pull off.

Similar advice can be found in Hamilton, when Aaron Burr advises Alexander Hamilton to “talk less” and “smile more” and “don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”

No need for me to say more.

Cathleen Watkins, a senior investigator at PII, has interviewed hundreds of people over the past 20 years. These interviews have often focused on difficult experiences that people had at work, at school, or in some aspect of their lives. Watkins is also a trainer and project director at T9 Mastered, an affiliate of PII that provides training to Title IX professionals.