Librarian's Lobby
May 2003

by Daniel D. Stuhlman

Interviewing Skills

On the last days of Pesah (Passover) I had a confluence of ideas while thinking of what to write this month. Recently I lectured to my class about the skills needed for the reference interview. On the seventh day of Pesah I heard a story as part of the rabbi's sermon. The story went something like this: An American rabbi was visiting Israel. The rabbi was invited to give a lecture. While driving he lost his way. Seeing a man with a kipah walking along the road, the rabbi asked for directions. The man gave directions and said that he could show him the way since he, too, was going there. The rabbi got to the lecture and thanked the man in Hebrew. The man corrected the rabbi's Hebrew expression with a quote from the Talmud (Baba Kamma 20b) Zeh Nehene ve-zeh lo haser (This is a case when there was no loss.) There was an exchange of communication and both the rabbi and hitchhiker gained in the transaction.

In many previous columns I dealt with answers to reference questions. Now I want to approach the question from a difference point of view-- that of the expert helping the questioner. The skills needed by the reference librarian are some of the same skills needed by people in customer service, teaching, or counseling situations. People are in general curious beings. We like to have answers to our questions whether they are part of our work life or non-work life. Information seeking is dynamic and multidimensional. We may be driven by curiosity, decision making, problem solving, or a simple need for stimulation. Since the process of seeking information is dynamic, our goals change during the process. The job of the librarian is to help the reader clarify the search and then point the reader in the right director. Generally we turn to the sources closest at hand -- the people and books around us. Only after we have no successes with these types of resources are we likely to turn to an institution such as a library. Often, even well-educated people have no idea of the variety and types of resources that exist.

Each person is unique. Style is the projection of personality, character, and skills that affect behavior. Librarians, teachers, rabbis, and others may be straightforward, businesslike, relaxed, chummy or any combination of traits depending on the person and situation.

The Question

The librarian first needs to concentrate on the interview and use verbal and nonverbal to determine exactly what the reader wants. Remember that what the reader asks is not always what they need. They may not be able to articulate what they need and they may be purposely obtuse. The reader may be obtuse because of privacy, security or modesty. The reader may ask for the law book section because they are embarrassed to ask for the actual topic wanted. The goal of an interview is success, but that does not mean the reader always finds a book. Many successful interviews may conclude without giving the all the answers. The discussion with the librarian may just be a clarification. The reader may be an expert in the topic and may have been satisfied to just discuss the question.

Tangible Skills

These skills can be learned and need to be practiced to be an expert. These skills are applicable to most interpersonal interactions.

Non verbal skills

1) Eye contact

Look the person in the eye. In our culture looking at someone in the eye indicates interest and concern. You would feel unimportant and secondary if the person you were talking to was busy typing on their computer keyboard or flipping papers to look at you. However, in other cultures direct eye contact is not advised. Some are shy, modest or religious people may be uncomfortable or offended if you look at them too much. Eye contact is easier to maintain when both parties are at the same level. Both should be sitting or standing so that the eyes can meet. If talking to a child, the adult may want to sit or bend down to the child's level.

2) Gestures

Gestures are body movements that convey messages that intended and non-intended. Move your arms, hands and shoulders to reinforce what you are saying. Avoid nervous habits that distract the questioner from the answer.

3) Relaxed posture

Appear relaxed, not stiff to enhance communication. Slight leaning toward the person will convey interest. Leaning back and crossing your hands conveys lack of interest.

4) Facial expression

Smile and sparkle at appropriate times. Have the look of sincerity. Smile and look happy to indicate you are ready to help.

5) Tone of voice

If you say, "May I help you?" make sure your tone matches your words and intentions.

Verbal Skills

1) Remembering

Listen carefully and take notes if needed. If you are trying to piece together a puzzle, write down the pieces. Nothing annoys the reader more than repeating something the librarian should have remembered. Almost any conversion is enhanced by remembering what the other person said. Talkative people may give too much information and hinder the ability to know what is salient.

2) Avoiding premature diagnoses

Don't make assumptions based on what you imagine should be the answer. This skill takes years of experience to hone. Two people may ask you a question with the same exact words and the answers you give may be entirely different. For example the question is: "Where are the books on flowers?" The first person wanted to plant flowers in his yard. The second person wants examples of flowers for an art project. Do not make assumptions based on age or clothing. A child may need an adult book and an adult may want a children's book. On a college campus a shabbily dressed person may be a brilliant professor or a janitor.

3) Reflecting feelings verbally

Restating and paraphrasing the question or statement is a powerful tool. It tells the questioner that you understand the problem and you care enough to help find the answer. The act of restating the problem may be an answer by itself. Even in personal relationships, the reflection helps turn a complex conversion in simpler parts.

4) Using encouraging remarks, restating or paraphrasing

Saying something like, "Umm, Oh!, or Then!" tell the other person you are listening, but have not immediate words. "Give me an example, " "Tell me more," or "I'm not sure I understand." Let the other person rephrase or explain the question better. If the questioner is a better expert than the librarian, the words of encouragement enable the librarian to learn more about the subject and enable a better answer.

5) Closure

Do not interrupt the question or cut off the answer. Make sure to answer the question and close the conversation. If the questioner says "thank you," convey a proper, positive closing word.

6) Opinions and suggestions

Make a suggestion for further queries or directions for answers. If the question is of a sensitive nature in the legal or medical area make sure, the questioner knows you are not giving medical or legal advice. You are just showing the sources.

If the person is not satisfied with the answer use open-ended questions such as, "How does that sound?" "What is the _____? When? Where." Closed-ended questions begin with: is, do, has, can, will, and could. Open-ended questions give more opportunities to find an answer. Closed-ended questions are conversation enders.

I hope these suggestions help in all of your conversations even if you are not a librarian. Communication is a process of learning to use the same language, terms, examples and vocabulary so that the other person knows what you are saying. Some of the communication skills can be taught by a teacher, while others require experience to learn the subtleties and balance of academic knowledge, style, nonverbal and verbal communications.

This returns us the quote, "Zeh Nehene ve-zeh lo haser." When the questioner finds what is needed this is case when both the librarian and questioner gain.


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 © 2006 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised March 30, 2006