About Informational Interviews

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Probably the most powerful tool a professional can have in their toolkit, the informational interview is designed specifically to engage and include an expert or key influencer in your quest. There are many uses for an informational interview including to:

  1. Introduce yourself to a new contact,
  2. familiarize yourself with a new topic/industry, or
  3. test and confirm business concept or idea before you have invested heavily in it.

A welcome outcome of many interviews is increased connections that will promote your idea and the expansion of concept dimensions, creating an even better idea, product or service. There is always a purpose for an informational interview… it is not about just grabbing coffee and shooting the breeze.

It’s a conversation

Although the purpose of an informational interview is to obtain as much information from your subject in 20 minutes, it is important to treat the interview like a conversation, not an interrogation. Follow-up gently with pertinent questions during the discussion. Never talk for more than 3 minutes without engaging your interview subject.

The focus of the interview is to allow you to demonstrate your well-developed listening skills. Always listen to the answer your interview subject gives and ask follow-up questions that demonstrate you understanding and connection with the ideas.

Active listening engages all senses. As you take in and process the information you are receiving, remember to nod your head appreciatively to signal that this is a productive path for the conversation. Listen for key, relevant information and references. Take the opportunity to ask probing questions which will afford deeper insight or details. Take note of the points your interview subject makes which are of particular interest to you.

Informational Interview Structure

The structure of an informational interview is standard. It contains a 1) Set Up, 2) the Interview with specific questions, 3) a Wrap-up.

Set Up

Set up interview appointments with two or three individuals who share areas of genuine interest with you. The objective for you is to acknowledge their expertise, and to obtain their agreement to be interviewed. It is very important that you also recognize how busy they might be.  When you send your introductory note, be sure to be clear about why you desire the meeting, the goal, and provide some suggested times/dates for the discussion. Example first contact …

I’ve been referred to you by [insert name of colleague/contact]. May I ask for 20 minutes of your advice & counsel? I’m not looking for a job or trying to sell you anything. I am interested in speaking with you briefly about [insert topic] because I understand that you [insert why you want to speak with that particular person].

Could we set up a time that is convenient for you? I suggest [insert 1 or 2 dates/times], but if these are not convenient, please let me know what works for your schedule. 

The Interview

Always open the interview by thanking the subject for their time, reminding them about how you came to be speaking with them (ref: Set Up note). Say something like:

Thank you for your time. Your colleague [insert name], mentioned that it might be advantageous for us to have a conversation. I would appreciate getting your advice and counsel on [insert topic]. 

Use Three Key Questions

Tip: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is when someone asks for 20 minutes of an expert’s time and then think that they can ask 20 questions in that time. Plan 3 main, and 2 or 3 back up questions.

  1. Tell them about yourself: “May I take 2 minutes to tell you who I am?” [and why I’m here to seek your advice & counsel?]
    • Provide 2 or 3 prepared (& practiced) messages within two minutes. They should show how your interest is relevant to their areas of knowledge & the discussion and why you are looking for information about the topic.
  2. Ask a question that is relevant to the topic (eg, about their background or expertise).
    • “Could you tell me more about your background & how you came to be here? or “How did you come to be doing what you are doing now?” (or .. hold this position, be an expert in this field, etc.)
  3. Ask a ‘big question’ that gets to the point of your meeting.
    • “What are the big issues, challenges or risks with [the topic under discussion]?” or “What is your assessment of what is happening currently?” or “Any insight on what will happen next… in the coming years?”

Take notes during the interview to capture the most important points.


Approaching the 20-minute mark, say something like: “We are approaching our 20-minute mark.’ and observe their reaction. They may often say that they have a bit more time. Whether they are open to continuing or not, you should have the main information you came for within the required time and wrap up quite close to the agreed end time. By wrapping up on time, you signal that you know how valuable their time is and, in most cases, especially if you’ve done everything correctly, you will be welcome to reconnect in the future.

To close, thank them for their time, summarise 2 or 3 of the most important points and ask if they would be ok with a written follow up if you think of other questions or need clarification of something they mentioned. As well, ask them if they know of anyone else that you should interview. Finally, offer to provide an update on your progress if they are interested.

Remember to send a thank you note within 48 hours of the interview. List some of your next steps, any important comments you took to heart and thank them again for their time. 

Use this handy planning sheet to organise your thoughts.

Competency Inventory

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When working in teams, it is important to understand similarities and differences between team members. As you consider what skills you bring to the table, consider how they dovetail or support other skills in the team to achieve its goals.  

One way to do this is to identify your top three (3) skills/competencies that can be leveraged as a value-add to your team. Take time to explain your selections to your teammates. For a team to be effective it should have different skills as well as overlaps between team members.  


Leadership & Innovation

  • Communicate clearly
  • Set & execute goals
  • Connect with people
  • Evaluate situation & guide people
  • Improve continuously
  • Generate new & original ideas
  • Project self-confidence

Create Understanding

  • Clarify expectations
  • Provide specific examples
  • Create feedback loops
  • Link ideas/concepts to current situation
  • Understand people
  • Listen empathetically
  • Be consistent

Organisational Integration

  • Optimize opportunities
  • Detect synergy & co-operation points
  • Optimize process/people mix
  • Identify potential synergies
  • Encourage cooperation points
  • Follow processes/procedures

Strategic Mindset

  • Think in perspective
  • Benchmark processes
  • Plan, test & modify strategy
  • Measure change/improvement
  • Share astute insights
  • Generate ideas/strategies/insight


Problem Solving

  • Adapt to changing situations
  • Observe interaction of processes / people
  • Identify & analyze critical elements
  • Gather feedback
  • Control emotions
  • Resolve conflict
  • Look for answers / focus on facts

Produce Results

  • Identify critical elements for success
  • Seize opportunities / Take action
  • Course-correct
  • Make correct decisions
  • Work as a team
  • Pay attention to details
  • Verify assumptions/results

Manage Change

  • Take a digital attitude/approach
  • Be flexible / consider possibilities
  • Thrive in ambiguous environments
  • Acquire new knowledge & skills
  • Apply existing competencies differently in new situations
  • Hold a positive mindset
  • Set & follow goals/objectives

Communicate Ideas

  • Convince people
  • Question/explore ideas of others
  • Empower the team
  • Make a good first impression

Managing Difficult Interaction

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Conflict is a fact of life. It can be caused by many things, including …

  • Poor Communication
  • Differing Values
  • Differing Interests
  • Scare Resources
  • Personality Clashes
  • Poor Performance

Sometimes conflict is caused by thinking that there won’t (or shouldn’t) be any conflict! Expecting every interaction to go smoothly, can cause even more stress when conflict arises! There are a few ways people deal with conflict[1]. They may:

  • Avoid addressing the problem
  • Seek compromise
  • Accommodate others
  • Collaborate for a win-win
  • Compete
  • Attack

Of course, it is less stressful to use productive conflict management behaviours rather than engaging in behaviour that can be destructive to career or personal relationships.

The interesting thing about learning to deal with difficult people effectively, is that everyone, at some time or another, could be considered a difficult person. Typically, we may classify someone as being difficult, or a difficult person, because they do not agree with the status quo, our individual belief, or take a stance that threatens our personal agenda consistently.

Conflict is not that difficult to overcome with a planned & strategic approach… Creating a meaningful connection is probably one of the easiest ways to reduce conflict and defuse stressful situations.

The ACIS Method

Here is an approach that can be used to bridge gaps & reduce resistance: building a sense of connection, understanding & engagement.

A – Accept conflict

You will never agree 100% of the time with 100% of the population. There will always be conflict. In fact, most people would be bored if there weren’t any! Don’t shy away from conflict, stay connected. Figure out how you feel or what you believe, and be clear about where you stand. Take time to understand why you think the way you do, but don’t steamroll over others. They will have an opinion that may differ from yours but that does not make them wrong..

C – Calm yourself

Know your triggers. Don’t assume the person is being difficult on purpose. They may just be trying to protect their interests. Choose the right time & place to clarify the issue calmly. Be conscious. Are you taking this personally? Separate your needs from the task at hand. The main goal should always be to maintain the relationship by separating the problem from the individuals.

I Identify the real problem & constraints

Ask authentic questions amicably to get more information. Listen empathetically for cues & clues about your counterpart’s interests. Paraphrase and summarise to elicit hidden meaning & information. Find out what the person is trying to preserve or protect, or what they need. Decide together if it is feasible to fulfil their needs or not. If not, what is the fall-back? Be curious. Ask open-ended questions… “From your point of view, what’s going on here?”, “What bothers you most about this situation?”, “Is there something that would help you do your job better?”, “It sounds like there are quite a few problems here: why have you stayed?” or “Why do you think that person is acting that way?!”

S Solve & Settle

Don’t limit yourself to just getting the job done today. Summarise how you resolved the conflict and agree to using, at least in part, successful conflict resolution strategies in the future. Define a key phrase that can be used to flag issues or conflicts that require a bit more consciousness to resolve. My favourite phrase is – “We may need a Kitchen Table to sort this out!”

Supportive Techniques

The following techniques can support you while you build your conflict management tool kit.

Deep breathing: when you feel your heart start to race, or your temperature rise, take a few slow, deep breaths. This will trick your body into thinking that everything is going well.

Take a break: If things become heated, take a break. Come back when everyone has calmed down.

Rehearse: Preparation is key. Run through a few scenarios with your team. Try to identify anything that might excite emotions and consider what you will do (your coping technique) to prevent escalation.

Signal Empathy & Collaboration: Use phrases like: “I understand what you mean.”/ “That’s a valid point.”/ “I can see your point of view”

Be accountable: Use ‘I statements’. Pay attention to what you are doing, thinking, and feeling and ‘own’ your responsibility for ensuring that all conversations have a great outcome.

Above all, being gracious & dignified during any interaction, is a foundational behaviour that sets the tone for interpersonal success.

  1. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, Conflict Styles, 1970 ⤴️