We interview customers, personnel, and stakeholders in order to find answers to problems and solutions to hick-ups. No, your customers and stakeholders are typically not criminals. But they are humans - the same as murderers - and there are great lessons to learn from watching the TV series The Fall.

Detective Superintendent Stella - depicted by Gillian Anderson - is one tough detective, and she uses her powers to get through to her “interviewees”. 

”Go on”, she said, and my mind was blown. I thought: “that’s how you run a customer or stakeholder interview”. So I decided to match my extensive experience interviewing and consulting about interviewing, with my hours on the TV couch and lay out what you need to know about how to run a successful interview and which questions to ask. Not all interviews are smooth sailing, so let me show you how she does it.

This is especially important in difficult interviews where:

  • You have a hostile interviewee
  • There is a delicate situation (for example when you are asking something very personal)

    These are the five things Detective Superintendent Stella does that you should do, too:

    1. Build trust

    To succeed in an interview, the most important thing is to lay down trust. Be on the same level with your interviewee. The more you can do it without mirroring his posture, facial or oral expressions, idioms, etc. the better. Sometimes mirroring, especially when revealed, can be a red flag. Sometimes you need to give time for the proper atmosphere to build up. 

    What if your interviewee rushes from grocery shopping? Would he be able to concentrate on the issue without being influenced by the stress and emotions from waiting in queue for ages? It is better if you use 20 minutes to set the foundation, even if it leaves only 10 minutes for questions. Don’t rush the questions, only to get angry or lame answers powered by a mind that is still queuing.

    During the interview, maintain the trustworthy atmosphere. Say “yes” with a calming voice to encourage the other to continue. Even if the stupidest or most horrible thing is said, do not oppose it. Let it pass. The interview is not about you!

    An example from Stella’s world:

    The suspect gets tired of the interrogation and wants to agitate Stella. He exaggerates by saying how he killed more brutally more women than he is accused of. Stella says nothing, stares at him as calmly as if he had said nothing at all, waits for the scene to calm down and continues as if nothing happened.

    2. Keep the interview on track

    Always bring the interview back to where it should be. If there are sidetracks, be calm (“yes”) and go back to the topic that was discussed before the sidetrack: “you mentioned that - - “.  

    To get deeper or wider on the subject, use idioms like “go on”, to give space and freedom for the other to talk. Or, if you wish to understand history or reasons behind, say “take me back to the beginning.” If the interviewee appears to be at a crossroads in telling or otherwise disturbed, ask “what is happening there?”, indicating if you are asking about the current moment or about the incident you were being told about. Let the interviewee decide.

    Chances are – unless the feeling is overwhelmingly disturbing – the interviewee continues where he left off. You may also remind him that “there is nothing to worry about” + pause. Or in a near panic attack, whisper “breathe” clearly directed towards the interviewee.

    An example from Stella’s world:

    Witness is nervous. She doesn’t exactly know why she is interviewed or what is expected of her. She doesn’t even know if she is being accused herself. In the middle of her answers she remembers she should pick up her daughter from school, mixes up weekdays, etc. It is difficult to follow her story. Stella takes notes picking up the essential from disorganized talking, she uses her whole upper body in bringing the interviewee’s concentration back to the interview. She doesn’t interrupt, she barely asks questions. Stella is there to support.

    3. Deal with emotions but do not jeopardize the big picture

    The more delicate, oppressing, hostile, etc, the interview is, the more you must be on the same emotional level or calmer. Talk almost in a whispery voice, as little as possible. 

    A real-life example

    Once, an interviewee sat on a chair in front of me with his hands firmly hugging his upper body, an oppressing power posture. He confirmed his name and position, and said nothing after. He had obviously decided not to give me anything. When I realized in a few minutes that it would take me too long to build trust between us and, since I already had enough information, it was easy to spare him.

    I gratefully thanked him for being on time and for participating in the study. Returning his own medicine made him puzzled and hesitant to leave the room, as if he wanted me to continue the interview. 

    Lesson: When you have enough data, do not cling on to the pre-plan.

    Worse are those, where you detect that you are told semi-truths or common speculations. If you cannot change the course of the interview, it means you haven’t been able to build trust. Most probably your clock is ticking, and you are losing the interviewee. That is why I prefer to interview fewer people and be able to come back to re-interview the person, if need be. It is so important to direct the choice of interviewees and not let the client do that entirely for you.

    An example from Stella’s world:

    Stella asks the witness why she came home later than expected. She wants to understand the relationship of the witness and suspect to verify the whereabouts of the suspect. The witness tells a story which is obviously untrue and illogical. Stella listens to it, but does not let it go into useless details. She doesn’t care about the story line. She listens to the story only to find the motive for the witness’ lie. 

    4. Separate facts from feelings

    The interviewee - just like the interviewer - has feelings and probably other, more important issues in mind than the interviewing subject. Since the subject to be studied hardly has any psychological dimensions, it is important that you as the interviewer detach feelings from facts, whether your own or the interviewee’s. The interviewee seldom separates them. So it’s your job to do it for him.

    If your interviewee mentally punches you by saying something that hits your emotional buttons, it is extremely important to bypass them and bring the discussion back on track. If the sidetrack has value for the research, a direct question should be in place: “you wanted to hurt me / push my button. Why? What does it mean to you?”.

    An example from Stella’s world:

    The suspect intrudes into Stella's privacy: reads her diary, says they are alike, befriends even fancies, analyzes her personality. Stella sets herself to observe all this as an outsider. She says “enlighten me” to find out the thinking of the suspect. Or, when the suspect says Stella has never given herself fully to anyone, Stella returns the conversation to him: “And you have?”

    5. Maintain the bird’s-eye view while in water

    I would like to believe that Stella’s ability to stay outside the topic and to see the big picture while being able to level up with the interviewees emotionally, is a result of her degree in anthropology. That is true that no other discipline gives a person academic skill on being both an outsider and insider.

    My ex-colleague and I named the method as Suula. It is Finnish for northern gannet. It is a bird that can stay long periods of time in water, yet its main view on issues is that of a bird’s - a bird’s view, that is.

    Anthropology does not go to the mind, soul or heart of the research subject. It is more interested in what happens in between the people and what the dependencies are. Motives and feelings are meaningful only if they have an impact on the common story.

    Make it an intimate discussion, not an interview, without deep feelings and stay on track.

    An example from Stella’s world:

    Stella has secrets, pains, sorrows, fantasies, even traumas but, although her diary is collected as evidence, she keeps her cool. Even if accused, hurt or stimulated, she never fully gives herself for the interview as herself, but only as Superintendent Stella Gibson.


    So, to summarize:

    1. Build trust
    2. Keep the interview on track
    3. Deal with emotions but do not jeopardize the big picture
    4. Separate facts from feelings
    5. Maintain the bird’s-eye view while in water

    That’s it. You’ll crack the case. In about one hour - without commercials.

Published: August 13, 2021

Design and UX