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Questions for an interviewer

On occasion, interviewers can be amongst the most misunderstood people in the world, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Sep 15, 2007 23:22 IST

On occasion, interviewers can be amongst the most misunderstood people in the world. If what they’ve done strikes a chord they have no dearth of admirers. But when it doesn’t the criticism can be shrill and seemingly irresistible. Yet note the phrase I’ve used, seemingly irresistible. My intention is to explain why that’s only a matter of first appearance.

Today’s sentiments are sparked off by a casual conversation at a midweek party in Delhi. I was chatting to an engaging lady when, all of a sudden, changing the subject, she asked : “Tell me, why do you eat people up in your interviews? You’re so gentle otherwise but on screen you become a rakshas!”

“What do you mean?” I replied, flabbergasted. I often reassure my interviewees that I might look like one but don’t behave like a rakshas. The lady clearly disagreed.

“Look how you go for them”. I couldn’t help notice her chiffon sari and pearls. The effect was very tasteful. “I’m not talking of your manner, voice or the way you knit your eyebrows. I imagine you can’t help that. I’m referring to the relentless questioning. You pick an issue and go on and on.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “Surely you’d agree that if a question’s worth asking it’s worth ensuring it gets a reply? And if the person evades or prevaricates wouldn’t you expect me to persist?”

“Sure”. She puffed on an elegantly long cigarette. “But you do more than that. You don’t recognise when a person doesn’t want to answer. Instead you relentlessly carry on.”

“But if they don’t want to answer why did they agree to an interview!”

“Because there may be other questions they’re willing to answer. Why can’t you switch to them? Why persist with the one or two that’s a problem?”

“For that very reason,” I replied, somewhat smugly. “Isn’t that obvious?”

“Only if your intention is to rub their noses in it,” she shot back unabashed. “We all have weak points. You do too, I’m sure. But is it your job to only expose the chinks? Why can’t you reveal a person’s strengths as well?”

I was stumped. I thought of saying I wasn’t that sort of interviewer but knew I didn’t mean it nor want to be so known. Instead I came up with a weak but more truthful response. “An interview is not a public relations exercise. If they can’t think of how to project their strengths then, surely, the fault is theirs.”

But I know that people need help to project themselves — I do too — just as they need to be pushed, even cornered, for the weaknesses to show. However, the lady didn’t give me time to wallow in this self-corrective ruminative reflection.

“And what about your interrupting? Often you don’t let your guests finish. You simply railroad them. Why’s that necessary?”

“Ah,” I said, recognising a criticism I’ve often heard. “My interviews are done in real time. There’s no editing. What we record is exactly what you see.”

“So,” she said, unconvinced. Her voice left no doubt of it.

“Because there’s no editing I can’t let people evade or filibuster. They’re eating up real time. That’s why I interrupt them.”

“What would happen if you don’t?”

“Maybe three or four minutes out of twenty would be lost. Why should intelligent viewers have to put up with someone evading or avoiding the issue just because the interviewer hasn’t got the guts to shut them up or, worse, the sense to realise he’s being taken for a ride?”

“So you decide when someone’s speaking to the point and when they’re going off on a tangent?”

“Of course. Who else can?” But I suddenly realised I was making myself both prosecutor and judge.

“Why don’t you leave that to the audience?”

“Because they’d be so bored by the evasion and waffle, by the fact the interview is going nowhere and achieving nothing, they’d switch off.”

“In which case why record in real time?” She smiled triumphantly. “Edit out the bits you consider waffle afterwards.”

“Give me the power to edit and I also have the capacity to do it wrongly, unfairly or change the meaning of what’s been said. It’s more honest not to edit.”

After this she didn’t persist. Perhaps she tired of the subject. But I doubt if she was convinced. If you want, judge for yourself — watch Devil’s Advocate on CNN IBN at 8.30 tonight. The repeat’s on CNBC at 10.