Vivien FellegiVivien Fellegi is a former family doctor who enjoyed listening to her patients’ stories more than diagnosing their illnesses. Today she works as a freelance health journalist, specializing in mental health and social issues.

Vivien is PWAC Toronto’s new VP membership and organized the chapter’s upcoming seminar on interviewing (register for the seminar here).

Here she provides her own perspective on interviewing and what she’s learned moving from medicine to journalism.


Asking questions from the perspective of many professions

By Vivien Fellegi

I discovered the importance of effective interviewing skills when I was a fledgling doctor starting out in a Toronto walk-in clinic. No lectures had addressed this topic in medical school, even though asking the right questions and helping patients feel comfortable while answering them are paramount for a correct diagnosis. I found myself utterly at a loss asking my patients the toughest ones — how they wanted to handle an unwanted pregnancy, determining the lead-up to a mental illness or finding out how a man with cancer wanted to die.

Lack of time was one obstacle to learning about patients’ lives — most doctors stick to the recommended 15 minutes per patient rule. But rushing traumatized people only made them clam up. So I stopped looking at the clock and let people tell me their stories at their own pace. My manager wasn’t pleased about this, banging loudly on the door when the lineup outside grew intolerable.

As I became accustomed to people opening up about their lives, my judgment dwindled and my curiosity grew. Hearing an elderly patient disabled by back pain confess to fraud reinforced to me that even criminal actions usually have mitigating circumstances.

Interviewing as a journalist

After I switched careers to become a journalist, my education in interviewing became more formal. I learned several tips from my instructors: try to find out one thing you have in common with your subjects to help them warm up to you, echo their language and move from the least to the most intrusive questions. I think the main technique for getting through to people isn’t a tool but an attitude — approaching them with genuine interest and empathy.

But I’m still learning about perceptive interviewing. A couple of years ago, an Inuit elder hung up on me after I tried to redirect him while he was rambling off topic. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong, so I contacted freelance writer and interview coach Paul McLaughlin, one of our upcoming panellists. He explained that elders expect to be treated with deference, and they should never be interrupted.

Looking to other professions for insight

The importance of communication, however, isn’t limited to doctors and journalists. Criminal lawyers and psychologists also need to tackle sensitive subject matter in order to do their jobs properly. And that’s why we’ve assembled experts from several professions to share their tips on interviewing.

Paul McLaughlin realized early in his career that helping his subjects open up was the key to getting richer anecdotes and insights. Psychologist Victoria Lorient-Faibish employs an empathic communication style, fostering self-awareness in her clients that leads to change and healing. And criminal lawyer Caryma Sa’d relies on her keen interview skills when dealing with clients overwhelmed by the complexity of the criminal trial process.

I can’t wait to hear their advice.

PWAC Toronto’s seminar on Advanced Interviewing Skills for Writers takes place on Monday, Jan. 29 at 7:00 pm. Register online at