Eliciting a substantive story
Conducting a interview for a practitioner profile is both similar to and different from an ordinary conversation. Many daily conversation skills will be useful to you, like the skills you use when your friend is telling you a story about something that happened to her and you are curious to know more. Here are some common ways we encourage people to tell us a story:
- Allow yourself to be curious. Express your interest in how the interviewee does his/her work. S/he will sense a natural curiosity and respond accordingly.
- Use questions to stimulate talking and probe for details. Examples are: “Can you give me an example of that?” “Can you describe that in more detail?” “Tell me more about _________.”
- From time to time, encourage the interviewee verbally with phrases like “uh-huh” or “I see.” These also indicate interest.
- Use body language and facial expressions to communicate active interest.
- Don’t immediately fill every silence with another question. Wait to see if your interviewee has more to say.
But there are also ways this is not like an ordinary conversation. You are trying to “elicit” a profile or “mid-wife” a story that will teach what you want to learn. So here are some other things to think about:
- Try to develop rapport with the interviewee. For example, you might begin with a few minutes of “small talk” related to a common interest or express interest in something you see in the interviewee’s office.
- This is not the time to share your own stories (unless they are brief 1-2 sentence comments to help show understanding and build rapport). It is also not the time to argue, even if you vehemently disagree with something the interviewee has said. Remember: whether you happen to agree with the interviewee or not, you’re there to get their views and account, not to judge them. You can express appreciation for their candor and perspective, even if you have no fondness for their views. Ask good questions, listen, and learn all you can!
- Help your interviewee to help you. Don’t leave it to them to guess what you’re interested in. Tell them.
- Ask one short question at a time. If you ask two questions, the second will often get a response and the first will be lost. Or else, the interviewee will get confused about what you really want to know.
- Don’t be afraid to ask sensitive questions. People will can always decline to answer. It is possible to ask personal questions in an appreciate, not a “nosy” or intrusive way.
- Use “echo” questions to probe more deeply. If you hear, “It’s all a matter of respect,” you might ask, “Respect?….”. But if you hear, It’s all a matter of respect,” and nod solemnly and go on to another question (or let the interviewee simply continue talking), you’ve lost whatever is important there. After all, why in the world did he or she mean by “all a matter of respect”?
- Draw out significant but brief comments: “Could you say a bit more about …?” “What’s that mean for …..?” “Before you said …, and now you’ve said …’ I’m confused how ….”
- If you wish to challenge a claim, don’t personalize it (“I can’t believe you just said that!”). Rather, try “Some people have taken another approach to this; what are they missing?”
- Start the interview by asking about which case or project they’re going to share with you and how it ended up. Knowing the destination of the story will help you structure your interview time so that you can get to the end of the story and still have some time for reflection. They you can back up to the background (briefly!) and return to the case.
- Never lose sight of the story that you’re creating. You must help the interviewee to help you. (See “On Double Vision”). At various points, you will need to intervene to gently guide the interviewee back from a tangent to the story or to ask questions to help make the story richer, more complex, and more detailed. (See “Handling Challenges”).
- Managing an interview is a delicate balance. You don’t want to be too intrusive (e.g., filling every pause with a question, trying to tell your own stories). But you also don’t want to be too deferential (e.g., allowing the interviewee to talk without direction, not probing for sufficient detail). Either extreme can derail an interview.
Finally, we all have (usually unconsciously) internalized cultural norms related to asking people questions about their lives. These will differ, depending on the cultures in which we were raised. But it can help to think about what these norms are for you. If asking questions is difficult, it may help to remember that interviewing takes active work. It is your job to join with your interviewee to bring their story to life. Most people will be glad for your help.
Listen to audio clips of some experienced interviewers ....