One mind trick to get more out of even the toughest interviewee

What happens when we need to do something that is in opposition to what we believe? How does our behavior change our previously held belief? And how can we use this understanding to unleash one super mind hack to always get more depth out of even the toughest of interviewees?

One mind trick to get more out of even the toughest of interviewees!

There’s a pretty common storytelling maxim: story is king, meaning that the story matters above all else. While there is a lot more to the discussion, most of us would probably agree that we’d prefer to tell an amazing story with poor gear over a crap story with newest top-of-the-line gear.

So story is powerful and it’s something that many of us try to put first. So what happens if I were to come up to you at a conference and ask,

“Go find five of your friends and try to convince them that the latest camera or the best lenses are more important than the quality of your story."

If I seemed genuine in the request, it certainly might be something you would consider trying for me. Simple enough so far. But now imagine that I offered to pay you either $1 or $50, just for your help.

You then take my money and go run around the conference, trying to convince all of your friends that gear matters more than story.

Here’s the interesting part:

The next day I come up to you and ask you one simple question, one that’s come up in many circles, countless times–how much do you value story?

What’s likely to happen? And what the heck difference does it make whether you were paid $1 or $50?

In one of these scenarios your attitude actually changes quite a bit. And while we might assume that if you were paid more then your attitude would also change more, the complete opposite is true.

If I had asked you to tell your friends that story wasn’t nearly as important as gear, and I only paid you $1, you’d be much more likely to change your attitudes and beliefs to be in line with what you were just telling your friends. In this case, that gear was more important.

If you had been paid more, you’d instead rationalize that you were simply telling your friends because you were getting paid. You’d still maintain that story was more important than gear.

That rationalization disappears if you were only getting paid $1, and that paves the way for the attitude change.

All of this is an example of what’s called cognitive dissonance. Understanding how it works will unlock a powerful technique for conducting remarkable interviews.

Cognitive dissonance refers to a state of tension that occurs when our own attitudes and behaviors are in contradiction of one another. Our reaction to this state of tension is to reduce it–either by changing one of our behaviors or one of our attitudes.

A super simple example is to ask someone who smokes if he cares about his health. If he wants to answer “Yes,” yet understands that the behavior of smoking isn’t consistent with valuing good health he experiences this state of tension known as cognitive dissonance.

And if you’ve ever asked a smoker about this discrepancy, you’ll notice that he’ll have a number of reasons to explain away the contradiction. Perhaps he’ll say he doesn’t smoke all that often. Or he’ll start listing all his healthy behaviors that make it okay. Or he’ll tell you that he’s about to quit.

When we’re presented with our own attitudes and behaviors that contradict each other, we’re driven to reduce this tension. And so we either discount one of the attitudes, or we add an additional attitude or belief that explains why there isn’t really a contradiction after all.

This idea of cognitive dissonance is something that scientists have been looking at for decades. And it’s a really powerful motivator of behavior. It also happens to be a technique I regularly apply when conducting interviews to get even the toughest of interviewees to go deeper with their comments.

So how do we apply this idea of cognitive dissonance to an interview? And why is it so powerful?

How cognitive dissonance can lead to deeper answers in interviews...

The key here is to realize that when we have two contradicting beliefs or attitudes we experience a state of mental tension, and that we’re driven to reduce that.

As the interviewer, if you notice that the interviewee has suggested two ideas that contradict each other, bring them up in the interview, and then let the person work through the contradiction. He or she will be intrinsically driven to reduce the cognitive dissonance and explain how those two ideas fit together.

Here’s an example of this technique in practice.

I was India a couple week back conducting an interview with the CEO of an inspiring and socially minded company based there. She talked about growing up with very little and how her mother impressed on her that the value she had was tied to how much good she did for other people. A few minutes later we were discussing her rise in amateur squash to one of the top players in Asia.

That’s where I noted a contradiction: she wanted to do the most good for others, yet she was spending all of her time trying to succeed and win a medal in a solo sport. So I brought up what she had told me about her upbringing and asked about how that fit with squash.

She took a minute to think about it. And then she passionately dove into all the things that inspired her commitment to squash. She spoke of how it helped develop her character and her mind, and how she spent a lot of time helping others on the team. Not only did she go deeper, but she was truly engaged in the question and was thinking about things in a new way–all of which lead to more authentic and passionate answers.

The mind trick for getting even the toughest of interviewees to go deeper is to look for contradictions.

This method can be so effective because so often interviewees will say what they think we want to hear. They’ll say what they think “sounds good.” Or they’ll share only that which their employers would approve. If they’re not answering authentically and deeply—which is where the best interviews come from—then challenging them on these contradictions is a great way to get deeper, more thoughtful answers.

Now some of you might be worried that the interviewee might be offended by these challenges. However, if you’re genuinely engaged in the conversation and present the ideas in a fair and positive way, most people will happily engage in a debate and enjoy the challenge. This isn’t about catching the interviewee in a mistake. Rather, it’s about honestly finding and pointing out contradictions as a way of encouraging the person to be more introspective.

How do you find these contradictions? Here are a few places to look:

  • Research the person online and look for her biography or portfolio website, older interviews on YouTube, or other videos that she may have been featured in.
  • If you’re doing a pre-interview or chatting with her before your actual interview, jot down major points or take-aways from your conversation.
  • During the interview itself, be present and actually take in her answers. Listening critically to what she’s saying is huge for becoming aware of contradictions as the interview goes on.

When you happen to find one of these contradictions, politely bring it up in the interview and juxtapose it with the other idea that you’d heard earlier. It often doesn’t take much more from that for the interviewee to grab on, accept the challenge, and try to reason through it.

I used to think interviews were about the questions I had prepared before the interview started. As long as I had the right questions, the rest was up to the interviewee. After a decade of experience and tons of research I know now how completely wrong I was.

Today I see interviews as much more of a boxing match. There is a constant back and forth, and it’s about being willing to shuffle, then accept and endure the challenges that come with interviews. Of course, in this simile the adversarial nature of a boxing match is gone, but the notion of moving around each other and going through multiple rounds (like your interview topics) very much remains.


The reality is that so much of what we get out of an interviewee–what she says and how she says it–comes down to the experience we create and how we handle the interview. It’s OUR technique, not their natural talent for being interviewed.

The art of conducting remarkable interviews is such a critical skill in storytelling that we’ve been working on a new course that tackles just this—how to get powerful and passionate interviews out of anybody.

You can learn more about the How to Conduct Remarkable Interviews course here, but in the meantime, we want to hear from you.

In the comments below, please share a moment when refusing to take an answer at face-value during an interview led to a lot stronger story.