Interviewing Part 2 – Insights from Interviewing Practice

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In the first blog post on interviewing (Interviewing part 1) I introduced you to the process of interviewing in the social sciences. In this blog post I want to build on the first part, but dive into real interviewing practice, explaining to you some of the issues I have come across when interviewing that you usually don’t read about in methods books. The list of experiences I want to share with you is not exhaustive but at least it sensitizes you to challenges of real life interviewing.

Common issues I have come across

  1. Interviewees try to look at your topic guide

This has happened to me on various occasions. You sit at a table facing your interviewee and put your topic guide (your questions) on the table as to fully concentrate on your research participant. However, as people are generally curious they will look at the guide to find out how many questions you have prepared, what will await them next etc. This will greatly distract both the interviewee and the interviewer and it will prevent a natural conversation from emerging. For this reason I have learned to memorize my questions as well as possible and to bring a clipboard with the topic guide clipped on to the interview, so that I have it close if needed without tempting the interviewee to look.

  1. Interviewees try to interpret why you ask certain questions

This has happened to me a lot! So be prepared for this. I don’t have an answer for how to behave best in such situations either. It is difficult. What I would usually do is try to reply to the interviewee in a way that shows my appreciation for their concern to thoroughly understand the interview but I would also try to be very honest about what I try to accomplish. So I would say something like: “Yes that is a very good aspect you mention here, which is also something I wanted to get to, but there is another aspect I tried to understand…”

  1. Interviewees get bored with the questions or get distracted (e.g. if you interview over phone or internet)

This is a very tricky situation. What has worked for me is trying to let the interviewee determine the direction of the conversation more autonomously to regain their interest. If this doesn’t work, I would try to get to the key questions quickly and then end the interview to make it less painful for both of you. If you want to be more provocative you can also ask the interviewee why this topic bores them. Maybe this will take the conversation in exciting new directions.

To stop them from getting distracted online, it is a good idea to explain at the beginning of the interview how important it is that you have their full attention. This will at least make it less likely that they engage in some other activity while you interview them.

  1. Interviewee answers with yes or no

This is a situation where you should seriously reflect on your own questions. Are they not phrased openly enough (i.e. open ended not leading to yes / no answers)? Can you think of other ways to probe for longer answers, such as “Can you tell me more about this?” “What is the story behind this?” “Do you have an example to illustrate this?” If the interviewee is still very much sticking to yes and no, then sometimes it is just best to end the interview early.

  1. Interviewee goes off to talk about something irrelevant for you

This is again a very difficult situation. You are glad they share their stories with you but you want to make sure you cover the key questions you have prepared. In this situation, I would stop the interviewee after a little while and say something like “That is so interesting, thank you for sharing, but going back to this topic…”

  1. Connection drops while interviewing (if online)

In this situation it is very important that you immediately write down what you were talking about when the connection dropped. Even if it is just a few seconds, you may both forget where you left off leading to valuable information getting lost. It happened to me on a few occasions and it is painful; so I now have a pen and paper ready so that I can write down the last sentences immediately after the connection drops.

  1. Interviewee has strong opinion you, as interviewer, don’t or even strongly disagree with

This is probably the most difficult situation to deal with and yes it happened to me. In such a situation it is really a question of what methodological standpoint you are taking. Are you a co-constructor of the narratives that emerge from the interview or do you think that you are a passive bystander? Depending on your standpoint to these questions you need to think about how to react. This is something you should really and carefully think through before you start any interview as to be prepared for the situation when it unfolds in the moment. If you decide to engage in a discussion with the interviewee rather than accepting his or her position then you should nonetheless make sure that you maintain a professional and polite tone at all times. I have found that in situations where I did challenge the interviewee on something I didn’t agree with, the most interesting insights were generated or co-constructed. Yet, it is a really difficult situation to deal with and you need to reflect on this on your own and possibly discuss this with your supervisor as well to find the most suitable approach for your specific research project.

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