Beyond Interview, Into Inquiry

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    In most interviews for public reading or viewing, indeed in nearly all of them, a strict and unspoken format is followed. The interviewer asks questions and the interviewee gives answers. There is a radically different approach—questioning together.

    Humankind faces an unprecedented crisis in every facet and at every level, and it is not being adequately addressed. Indeed, even the most serious talk shows ignore the crisis, focus on some particular facet of it, or deny there is one. Clearly, basic modes of public discourse have to be challenged, and alternatives put forth.

    The usual interview format has hidden but very definite assumptions built into it. One is that there is a separation between the interviewer and interviewee, with each having their own roles. The interviewer’s job is to elicit interesting answers from the interviewee; it is not to engage in an exploration of the subject at hand.

    When the interviewer does openly question an interviewee’s views, he or she usually comes off badly, giving the unmistakable feeling of having stepped on the guest’s toes. Of course there are TV formats that are designed to be confrontational. But the guest usually knows what they’re getting into, and the division between the host and guest, subject and object is always maintained.

    Another assumption is the primacy of expertise. The person being interviewed has a particular expertise, which the person conducting the interview elicits. But the plethora of ‘experts’ is making people more informed but less intelligent, more knowledgeable but also more dependent and deferential to those who supposedly know.

    The operating premise of the interviewer is, ‘I’ll defer to your expertise, because you know in this particular area.’ It certainly isn’t, ‘I don’t know and you don’t know; let’s see if we can have an insight together.’ But then, would it be an interview at all if that were the premise?

    Therefore the standard interview format tends to accentuate separation and ego in human communication, while diminishing authentic exchange and insight. As such, it does not advance human civilization.

    It comes down to the knots of ego and nets of knowledge. And the person with a claim to knowledge has a platform for his ego.

    Few interviewees can refrain from ego-inflation, and all must play by the rules of the game. Remove the centrality of either ego or expertise, and the whole interview format collapses into the meaningless exercise it largely is.

    Knowledge is obviously important, but knowledge, when put first, precludes insight, because knowledge is always of the past, and insight always arises in the moment.

    Very few question the primacy of knowledge. Indeed, even philosophers place the question of direct experiencing and insight in the context of knowledge, asking things like: ‘Can we have knowledge of external reality, beyond the phenomenal world of the mind?’

    Simply put, it’s not knowledge if it’s not in the head. But even that can be misleading, because the internal/external duality is itself a product of the human mind. So the real question, it seems to me, is: Is there a perceiving that isn’t a function of knowledge, and a learning that isn’t accumulative at all?

    Needless to say, I feel there is, and that we urgently need to discover and sustain it, both within ourselves as ordinary human beings, and in dialogue with others.

    If the cult of expertise continues to hold sway however, we can proliferate knowledge infinitely, but will never truly grow as human beings, and adequately address the crisis that faces us as individuals and humanity.

    While respecting the interviewee’s experience and expertise, we need to move beyond the question/answer model, which is not conducive to thinking together.

    Prior to the public dialogue, a different kind of homework needs to be done. What is our shared intent? Can our intent be to question and awaken insight together? Can we limit our responses (reactions really) from our knowledge and experience?

    How would an interview-inquiry (with the accent on inquiry) work? Following a series of introductory questions along standard lines to establish background, experience, and relevant information, the facilitator would ask questions with the intent that they be explored together, rather than answered from knowledge, experience, and opinion. The guest would be free to suggest other questions, until they find a thread that they can follow together.

    Knowledge and expertise certainly have their place, but they can’t be the basis of insights between the interviewer and interviewee, insights that can then be shared with readers or viewers. Inquiry is a matter of following the thread of questioning, with the questions leading, without answers.

    Most people think that where there’s a question, there must be an answer. But there are no answers really; there are only questions leading to insights. Therefore, rather than adhering to the injunction, ‘Don’t answer a question with a question,’ do!

    It’s not badminton, or tennis, but more like collaborative rock climbing, without the risk of falling (except for the ego). The question is the rope on which the co-participants hoist themselves, and no one can advance unless the rope is taut.

    The standard interview format, with its assumptions of expertise and ego, has become quite boring really. The Net affords the opportunity to do something radically different, and much more interesting—awaken insight together.

    Martin LeFevre
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