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Coaching Connie Chung on Interviewing


When it comes to interviewing, we can learn from the pros - even if that only means avoiding their mistakes. Connie Chung's highly publicized TV interview with U.S. Representative Gary Condit is a case in point.

Following that interview, Condit was roundly criticized for his rigid, defensive behavior and pat answers. But Condit's poor performance - at least in this case - may not have been entirely his fault. In fact, much of the blame lies with Connie Chung's interviewing style, which reflected both strategic and tactical mistakes.

For one thing, we think she chose the wrong initial strategy. Her use of an interrogation-style interview didn't allow Condit an opportunity to speak in his own behalf. That prevented any rapport building in the early stages of the interview and made it impossible for her to do more adroit probing later on. What's more, her first six questions were closed-ended, including the clincher: "Did you kill Chandra Levy?" Is it any wonder she got thoroughly predictable "no" answers?

Once Chung opted for the wrong strategy, it was almost impossible for her to change to a different line of questioning. The good cop can get tougher when she isn't getting the desired results, but the bad cop can't suddenly become genuinely friendly in the middle of an interview. The result was that the tone of the entire interview was cast with her first six questions.

So what should Chung have done instead?

First, we think she should have tried a more conversational approach to help build some initial rapport with her guest: "Thank you for joining us this evening. You have a long record of service to your constituents in your Modesto Congressional District. Now you face some questions about your relationship with a Washington D.C. intern who has apparently disappeared. I would like to get to know you better and understand your side of what must be a very challenging time in your life," and so on.

Once rapport was established, she could have tried to draw Condit out with "what," "how," and perhaps a few "why" questions to help reveal who he really is, rather than merely cross-examining him.

Our friend Mark Ghoulston, a UCLA psychiatrist who trains hostage negotiators for the FBI, says Chung might have asked questions such as these: "When have you told a lie in your life? Give an example." "Tell us something that bothers your conscience about this whole matter." "What is something you would have done differently if you had to go through this whole ordeal again?"

But instead of open-ended questions, Chung relied on a tightly scripted, closed interview - an approach that generally doesn't make sense, especially with an evasive subject like Condit. Here are Chung's first six questions:

1. Do you know what happened to Chandra Levy?
2. Did you have anything to do with her disappearance?
3. Did you say anything or do anything that could have caused her to drop out of sight?
4. Do you have any idea if there was anyone who wanted to harm her?
5. Did you cause anyone to harm her?
6. Did you kill Chandra Levy?

Note that each question begins with a verb followed by "you" - two solid indicators that a question is closed-ended and likely to yield only a "yes" or "no" response.

And that is basically what Chung got - five clear "no" answers, and one non-answer to question number 3 where his response was, "You know Chandra and I have never had a cross word." She never followed up on this self-serving and evasive statement. Had she done so, it would have been an opportunity to break her chain of closed-ended questions.

Her sixth question, "Did you kill Chandra Levy?" also yielded a "no" answer. What a surprise! Did she honestly believe that Condit, who has never been formally charged with any crime, would appear on network television and admit his guilt in front of 24,000,000 people?

Perhaps the most notable example of Chung's inability to seize an opportunity occurred during the following exchange:

Chung: Did you have an affair with Chandra Levy?
Condit: Because of a specific request of the Levy's, I will not go into the details of Chandra Levy at all.
(Note he did not answer her question and has now changed the subject and Chung doesn't call him on this.).
Chung: What exactly did they ask you to do?
Condit: Well. They asked a couple of nights ago, on uh, one of the TV shows that uh, that they did not want to hear about the details of the relationship.

Again Condit did not answer her previous question. Chung does not follow up on his reply. In fact, the Levys later denied having made any such request. Perhaps Chung simply did not listen to what Condit said. The opportunity to probe was lost and again we observe a lack of effective follow-up questions.

Effective Interviewing!® requires not only asking good questions, but also following up on the answers.

Thus, Connie Chung's interview was not a success. But it does provide a useful lesson for anyone who wants to be competent in this skill area. Based on Chung's mistakes, we suggest the following:

  • Take time to build rapport with candidates. Keep in mind that a stress interview or cross-examination style will not encourage a candidate to make any important revelations.

  • Avoid relying on closed-ended questions unless you want monosyllabic answers.

  • Avoid a highly scripted interview.

  • Listen to the answers you get; then,

  • Use effective follow-up questions.

As you learn these skills, practice them in the classroom or with your coach before you go on network TV.