How to Avoid (Mentally) Fleeing the Interview
September 6, 2018 9:23 AM   Subscribe

I recently accepted a job as a technical writer. This will include, among other new and intimidating things, the expectation that I verbally interview subject matter experts and/or take detailed notes at their meetings for the purposes of incorporating the information into reports. I am worried that my social anxiety is going to make this... challenging.

I have social anxiety that tends to cause my brain to shut down into a kind of survival mode when I'm facing unfamiliar or seemingly high-stakes social situations. Often in these situations I "perform" convincingly, but come away with almost no recollection of what happened during the interaction. This would be bad if a major slice of my job was retaining/capturing that information and being present enough to ask useful follow-up questions while I have access to the person who could answer them.

Combining this with a fairly low handwriting speed (and finding the act of taking notes pretty distracting in itself, especially if I'm trying to take part in a two-way conversation*), I'm concerned that I will be too afraid of people to adequately absorb and capture what they have to say! The fact that the information will be technical and unfamiliar is also likely to add extra fear-induced processing time if the worry that I won't be "able" to understand it ends up taking up precious mental bandwidth.

I'm hoping and semi-gambling on the idea that this will all be surmountable with practice, but in the meantime, I am trying to prepare a little if I can. Does anyone who has experienced similar hurdles have any advice for how to be more present during verbal interactions rather than just going into a terrified autopilot until the "threatening" situation is over?**

*It's possible I will have the option to record people, in which case this would become a lot easier, but the question still stands in terms of trying to get questions and potential misunderstandings cleared up while I'm physically present with someone or have them on the phone.

**Therapy may be on the table for later, but I spent a long time working with the wrong therapist and have been thriving much more since stopping, and am not eager to add a therapist search to the general life-transition juggling act right now.
posted by space snail to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do your anxiety come up in work situations currently? I've found that, since the expectations and roles are a lot clearer in professional contexts, my anxiety isn't nearly as present. Plus, it's a lot easier to prepare for this kind of thing, since you will have a pretty good idea of the information you'll need beforehand. If you can set up a sort of template, where you're looking for particular pieces of information and filling them in as the interview goes, I find that helps, rather than trying to take down everything, regardless of relevant.

I would definitely push hard to be able to make recordings, though - for technical writing where details are important, it seems like a no-brainer to have a verbatim record you can go back to.
posted by sagc at 9:37 AM on September 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

How much control do you have over the interviewing process? I find that it's easier for me to handle situations like this when I have two separate conversations. The first conversation is less structured and I spend getting the lay of the land and taking notes about what to ask about etc. (And getting comfortable). Then the second conversation, a day or two later, can be for follow-up questions, making sure your understanding is clear, etc. It really lowers the pressure of the first conversation and helps fill in any gaps in your understanding.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:42 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would strongly recommend pushing to take a voice recorder (or even just use voice memos on your phone) into these interviews. It sounds like for a number of reasons, being "present" in the interview is going to take all of your attention, so being able to process things afterwards would seem like the best option.

(this is not unusual practise at all, FWIW - when I've sat in UX research sessions and calls, every single one has been recorded so that everyone involved can be fully focused on the call, and then written up/analysed afterwards)
posted by parm at 10:08 AM on September 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

One thing I like to do is collaboratively develop meeting notes in the meeting. I will start composing an email reply to the meeting invitation. I project this on the screen. As we talk, I write the notes into the projected screen so they can be corrected as we go. Having a template with the questions to fill in pasted into the meeting invite helps a lot with this process.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:21 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

100% record the meetings. If some are calls and you're in a state where it's legal to record with the consent of only one party (you), personally, I would just do it. You can use Skype and Call Recorder. Or, it's easy to politely ask if you can record the call just for your notes. I interview people for work and always ask to record, and no one has ever said no.
posted by pinochiette at 10:23 AM on September 6, 2018

Nth'ing "record the meeting".

Also, ask questions. Even if it's just to pause the narrative.
posted by Etrigan at 10:25 AM on September 6, 2018

OneNote and Evernote will also record using your computer mike while you take notes, and routinely use them (OneNote is my business app) for discovery and business requirement meetings. It's not bad at capturing a room full of people but you might gather some friends or colleagues to do a sound test. I actually prefer to do these discussions remotely with gotomeeting now because I can record audio and visual.

I have pretty much zero social anxiety in work situations (assuming it's not confrontational). If I am relatively prepared - have some kind of notes or list or plan of what I need to know - this is just a task I am performing and has none of the stakes of freehand socialization, because it's pretty much not about me, I'm just a cog. I think you may be talking yourself into this being way worse than it's actually going to be, but I do think that besides capturing the session, being prepared for it (and as a technical writer that may mean you need to get questions from other people as well as putting together your own general structure for the interview) is your primary weapon.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:28 AM on September 6, 2018

Best answer: Record sessions, bring something to type on if it's easier than handwriting, and tell people at the end that you may have follow-up questions for them later by email. (That way you preempt any embarrassment if you realize you forgot something and need to clarify.)

One other thing that might help is to realize they aren't the only experts in the room. They know more than you about the specific technology in question, but you know better than them what information you need (that maybe they're forgetting to give you), and how best to present it to readers. (I mean, you probably don't really know those things right now, but you will become expert at this soon enough just by doing it enough times. So have patience with yourself and remember that you'll be getting better with practice.)

Also, see if you can use your anxiety to give you useful insights. Readers of technical documentation are often confused or even stressed by the material, and they're definitely not always fully present when they read. They're often going to get stuck on lots of points and have to reread a few times until they feel they understand. If you find yourself feeling and doing the same in an interview - that's all right! That means you'll have more insight into what parts are confusing and where the reader is apt to get stuck. It's your job to make the interviewees explain things as much as you need them to, and it's also to their advantage to make sure you understand. So take it slowly, don't feel that you need to rush, and don't be afraid of asking trivial or silly questions.. If people seem impatient, tell them "I know it seems like I'm getting stuck on details, but it's important that we're not missing anything and assuming knowledge some readers won't have. So let me see if I understand this last part..."

Finally, plan ahead and have as many questions prepared before the interview as possible (at least at first -you'll probably need much less preparation with time, because you'll have gotten good at this).

Good luck and congratulations on the job!
posted by trig at 10:43 AM on September 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

Focus on the content, not the person. It's not a performance, it's a fact-finding mission.
posted by zadcat at 12:02 PM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I do what trib suggests, using a recording service that provides transcriptions. For “work work“ I use their brand of meeting service which provides iffy but usable transcriptions and screen capture. I have trained my interviewees to read things aloud on the screen instead of just wiggling their mouse and saying “click here“

For personal small business use, I have a transcription service that has an App on my smart phone. I record the meeting, click to send it for transcription (not free but part of costs billed to client), and have it a few days later.

To prepare for meetings, I send out an agenda about what we expected to cover and if I can find out information about what we’re talking about, sketch it out a bit. Are usually depend on the recordings and I’m type written notes, but as I work in the software industry, I also do a lot of flowchart drawing.

I send out meeting notes almost immediately after the meetings, and ask for feedback.

In this way, I have built a strong, positive reputation of never asking the same question twice.
posted by tilde at 3:25 PM on September 6, 2018

In addition to recording interviews and using transcription software, is there a way that you can standardize even some of the questions that you ask your interviewee, swapping in the interviewees' names and subject areas as needed?

I worked in program evaluation briefly and a lot of interviews and discussion groups had the same basic questions: What do you like most about X? If you could change anything about X, what would it be? What are your goals for X in the next year? (you can write/edit these ahead of time and keep it on a clipboard in front of you for notes and to remind yourself of where you are in the interview). There was of course a need for follow-up questions sometimes, but it cuts down on the anxiety of what am I going to say? because you know what you're going to say - it's what you usually say, and it's right in front of you. Any handwriting you do can be reduced to a quick word or phrase to remind yourself to follow up on something the expert said, rather than attempting to take it all down by hand as it is happening.
posted by koucha at 1:05 PM on September 7, 2018

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