This is the second part of a blog post series on qualitative interviews, the first part on developing interview questions is here. This series is a result of a conversation with a friend and colleague who was asking for some suggestions over lunch. We had a chat about it, and I went away and had some more suggestions for her. These posts are what I ended up sending her a day later. This section talks about what to do in the actual interview, putting aside your biases, building rapport, and general advice on what to do in an interview.
Put aside your biases and judgements
Interviews are an effective and commonly used tool to gather data. It is important to prepare yourself before you start the interview process to get the most out of your interview.
Why be aware of your biases and judgements:
- It means that you can put them aside, so they won’t influence your research
- Less likelihood of unconsciously having biased or leading questions
- Will enable you to be more “present” during the interview and hear what the interviewee has to say.
- Less chance of you reacting to what people say during the interview, which in turn will lead to people being more trusting and therefore more honest and open.
How to do you get the out of the way during an interview?
One way to put aside your biases and assumptions is to record them before the interview. You can do this by writing them down, audio recording your thoughts, doing a mind-map, sketching, anything really. The process of getting things down means that they are stored, and safe. You can put the thoughts out of your mind because they have been stored in another place.
Is there a place for some assumptions/biases?
The short answer is yes, the long answer is, it depends. It depends on the methodology you are using, your research question, the stage of your interviews as well as the purpose of your research. If you are towards the end of your interviews, you might have a good feel for the data and might want to use the last few interviews to “check” what you’ve already heard. I’ve seen a few action research projects that have an activist component where the bias was (though you may not necessarily use that term) and will want to include them.
This means creating a space of trust, empathy and understanding between you and the interviewee. This starts from the moment you contact the participant but is especially important in the first few minutes of your meeting. When you first meet the interviewee, give them your full attention and put other distractions out of your mind putting your phone away is important and focusing on your breathing for a few seconds can help.
You could open up some small talk and ask general questions, provide background to the research (depending on the methodology). Be yourself, be authentic and try to make them feel comfortable. Give them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have about the research, either at the start or end.
It takes concentration and energy to be fully present for the duration of an interview. You will have thoughts and ideas come up as you hear people talk. Just be present and listen. The more focussed you are on them, the more likely they are to share. Think of it this way, when you talk to a friend, you can often tell when their mind wanders. It can be the same in an interview. What happens if you get distracted, is that the flow of the interview gets a little lost. It’s fine to move on, but you miss the opportunity to clarify something, or to ask further questions about it.
When you make a mistake, keep going
Even the most experienced researchers make mistakes in interviews. It is normal, just keep going. If you did get distracted, it’s still okay. If you simply say, pardon, could you please repeat that for me? It can help you to re-establishes rapport. You might also want to consider asking a clarifying question or asking the participant to repeat the answer.
You may have been judgemental, you might not have established rapport, you may have made assumptions, they may not like you! Either way, just move on. Remind yourself that the interview is not over, and there is still time to get back on track. Sometimes, that just might be the way the interview goes, and that’s okay too. Not all interviews will be the same.
Practice the Pause (Silence)
Allow for silences and pauses during the interview. The person may need time to think, process, formulate an answer. It is tempting to jump in and rephrase a question, or make a statement during silences, but try and avoid this unless necessary. In my experience, I’ve found that if an interviewee doesn’t understand the question, they will tell me in some way.
You may have seen this video, have a think about how much that silence says. Notice that the person asking the question did not follow up, clarify, or interrupt. Silences can be powerful.
One thing I have started practicing, and now suggest others try, is to practice silence in my everyday life. When talking to people, or even asking questions in your day to day life, as often as you remember, practice the pause. I have found that people around me have opened up much more.
If in doubt, ask:
If there is something the interviewee has said that you don’t understand or would like them to expand on, ask. It means you won’t have to spend valuable time trying to interpret or assume what they meant afterward the interview. It’s fine to (politely) ask them to clarify what they said. You could reframe what they said into a question, or ask “Can you please tell me more about ….?”
Feeding back to the interviewee on what you have heard is very useful. Providing feedback is where you repeat the key points on what you think you have heard is very useful. Something like “So what I understand is that ….” Or “What I’m hearing from you is that…”. It is not a time to analyse what you have heard. This feedback process demonstrates to the interviewee that you are listening. It gives them an opportunity to reflect on their responses. It also gives you an opportunity to clarify what you have understood, and address their key points. This is generally done at the end of the interview.
This process of feedback also helps when it comes time for analysis. If you have communicated and clarified the key points in an interview during and after the interview, it means you walk away with the confidence of knowing that you have understood the key takeaways from the interview. If you then go and do a write-up or summary of that interview, it will set you up for the analysis stage of your project.
Lastly, don’t schedule too many interviews on the same day. They can be tiring, and you will need time between each one to reflect, write and process what you have heard.
I would like to add a disclaimer. There are a lot of different types of interviews. They type will (should) be based on your research methodology. Some of these suggestions are transferable to any methodology, but not everything. These suggestions would work for a particular kind of phenomenological study, but again, it really does depend on your methodological approach. If in doubt, READ! I good book on interviews is Social Research methods by Bryman.