How can I get them to talk? Talking naturally in qualitative research interviews
Being in an interview setting can be very strange for all parties, and the kind of natural talk that is vital to insightful qualitative research can feel out of reach; you get the feeling that you are getting stilted answers, a bit like when you ask someone how they are and they respond 'I'm fine.' You both know that may not be true, but it is the socially scripted response to that question.
There is a lot of advice about creating a suitable environment for research interviews that often starts with creating a quiet area that allows for minimal interruption. Not bad advice, especially as it will lend itself to a good quality recording and easier transcription. But I once did some auto-ethnography in nightclubs. It certainly was not quiet there, yet I didn't have difficulty getting people to share their stories with me (at least not those that wanted to talk to me), even though we had to take turns shouting into each other's ear. So what is going on, what's getting in the way of talking and sharing?
Let's go back to the setting of a quiet environment. We request or arrange a quiet space and as we just sit there feeling more awkward by the second, we may ask our self, how quiet is too quiet?
Quiet and private spaces may give you a great quality digital record of your interview, but if you put the interviewees (and you) into spaces that are not natural for you, the content may not be so great. Natural settings for the participant that are slightly quieter than usual are probably going to lend themselves to a more natural level of talk than those that are unfamiliar.
Consider also the associations that place might have for your participants. The head of department's office might be familiar to your participants, but perhaps for reasons you would rather not associate yourself with. (For example, think of the effect of interviewing young people who find school difficult, in the head-teacher's office). The corner of a familiar classroom, the café your participant frequents, at a quiet time, outside the fire-door for a smoke (the things I do for my work!), standing at a work station rather than sitting, leaning either side of a five-bar gate, sitting in a quieter corner of a clinic waiting room, in the kitchen where they spend time talking rather than the sitting room where they watch TV, in their car, in the canteen, may all be more natural settings than an interview room. The setting or field for your interview should be determined by the context of your research*. If you haven't (or your participant hasn't) got much choice or control in your interview setting, consider talking about that at some point in the session. As Gregory Bateson (2002) would ask, What is the difference that makes a difference?
If I had not been doing an auto-ethnography, I may never have thought that interviewing in a noisy nightclub could be successful. Perhaps when we reach out to interviewees, instead of asking for a quiet place with minimal interruptions, we need to invite them to choose somewhere where they would feel comfortable chatting, remembering they may not want to be over-heard or interrupted. Be wary of being driven by the need to digitally record, rather than the need to facilitate your participants in talking to you.
This leads me to suggest that it is not just the environment that helps people to talk, it's the creation of conditions that are right for them and you, of which environment is only part.
Creating the conditions for structured conversation
Why were people willing to spend time talking to me in a busy nightclub? I wasn't paying them, and most of them came from groups out for the night; it was a lot easier to say no, than to say yes to talking to me. So it is safe to assume that the topic for discussion was of interest to them, rather than them being in need of someone to talk to. It's also safe to assume that if you have ethically recruited people who have agreed to talk to you then the topic will be of interest to them. So why is the conversation so hard? I'll stay away from issues of social elites and powerful seniors in this post, and stay with the scenario where you notionally are the one expected to lead the interaction, at least initially.
Breaking the ice and creating rapport
In Britain at least, the absolute standard norm for conversation openers for adults are the weather and (public) transport. In part because they offer a great variety of response and they can represent significant barriers to being on time for face to face meetings. In the absence of any outside travel, the comfort of the setting is an adequate proxy. (See our previous post on interviewing in people's homes).
If you've had lots of contact with your participants in advance of your face to face, you may feel that you'll have no problem with rapport. But like moving from online chat to a face to face date (and I'm not the first to make this comparison) I have often experienced a discomforting feeling of having to start afresh when I meet participants in the flesh. This is normal.
Of course, not rushing and pushing towards answers is good advice, and taking your time setting up and showing recording equipment is a way of building familiarity and rapport. You will develop your own approach but my usual approach is to:
Talk about weather/transport, listen and look for clues as to how the other person is responding, trying to match their energy
Accept or politely decline refreshment
All this while getting equipment and any initial consent forms or agreement forms signed. I have an aide memoire that keeps me on track with some of the admin, especially if conversation has moved quickly, as well as cues to help me feel confident in getting started
Show participants how to stop any recording equipment and invite them to start the recording.
Now that recording has started I remind (again) about the purpose of the research in informal language, and thank them for agreeing to be interviewed. This acts as a signal, if any is needed, that the interview has started, but keeping with a friendly and informal tone I ask them how they came to agree to be involved... and you're off with your first response. This will give you a good idea of how comfortable your participant is about talking to you or indeed 'with' you.
Asking the questions
The purpose of your research will determine the content of your questions, and to some extent the style of the questions and conversation. A pre-arranged interview with a professional about systems and policy will have a different tone to a street interview for market research, and this will be different again to talking to someone about personal debt in their home. You will develop your own style too that will reflect elements of your personality and your previous training.
I remember once after a training session how one participant exclaimed that he realised he had always approached interviews with direct questions and discounted any rambling information. Now he realised he'd been acting more like an interrogator than an interviewer. There may be times when you need to ask direct questions in the interrogative, who, what, when, where, how and (the killer question) why? But in qualitative research more exploratory styles are more helpful in helping conversation flow.
The following table is not exhaustive but it gives some indication of the variety of purpose and style in creating a flowing conversation and useful research data. Some of the examples could fit several purposes.
Closed and open questions
Closed questions only have limited answers. Often used to establish facts, they can also help someone who is finding it difficult to get started to at least get some words out.
How many people work with you?
What kind of car do you drive?
When we were on the phone earlier you said you would like to talk to me about X, is that right?
If someone is comfortable about talking with you then they will probably take even a seemingly closed Socratic question as an invitation to say more than yes or no.
Open questions invite extended responses.
Who, where, what, why, how, when. Your tone and manner can determine whether these are interpreted as open questions or closed interrogatives.
Would you like to tell me about your time at X?
You’ve seen some of my questions, where would you like to start?
Why don’t you…? Have you considered…? Have you thought about?
Did you say ‘morning’?
What did you mean when you said…?
Who does the shopping normally?
Describe a typical X for me.
Establishing characters and power
Who? Who decided?
What did they do? How do you feel/What do you think (about them)?
Expanding and steering
I’d like to hear more about X, if you don’t mind.
Let’s go back to what you were saying about X….
What else? Who else? Does that remind you of anything/anybody/anyplace?
Imagining or future pacing
If…., What would X do, In an ideal world…., Next time….
Challenging researcher assumptions
Who benefits from that? What are the benefits?
Would you like to tell me why that is important (to you)?
Somebody else might say X about that, what do you say?
I’ve often found X to be true, is that different for you? Some people find yes responses easier to give than no. Note how in this example invites a yes/positive response to the opportunity to disagree with you.
Openly stating your assumption and inviting a different response I’ve been assuming X. What do you think/Can I check that with you/Perhaps you’ve got a different angle that you can share with me…
Checking and clarifying
Take me back to what happened next…
Can I ask you what you meant when you said….
You said x, do you have another word to describe that…
Can I just check…
And how is that important to you/them?
What difference does x make to you?
Chunking up/classifying/proposing themes
What’s the difference that makes a difference?
How is x related to y?
Looking back is there anything that you have noticed or realised about what we have talked about today?
Things that are not really questions….
Whilst matching and mirroring can be used in body language and voice to establish rapport, mirroring in speech is used to help people to continue a thought or sentence. It can be used to help those who are finding it difficult to talk about something as well as those who are finding it difficult to keep a train of thought. It involves saying back the same words that your participant has used:
I want to talk about it but it’s a bit embarrassing … (Long pause)
You want to talk about it but it’s a bit embarrassing...
Well, it’s my sister’s idea … (Long pause)
It’s your sister’s idea…
Clearly commands might be heard as abrasive and over-bearing, but they have a place such as when you want to urge someone to continue, or when you want to keep your input to a minimum. Tone of voice is especially important here if you want to appear encouraging rather than over-bearing.
Tell me… Choose….. Do go on… Describe for me… Don’t stop
Congruence and professionalism
Your training, research purpose and chosen methodology will affect your levels of personal involvement in a research interview. Your personality and experience will also affect how you feel in an interview. There will be things that you know in advance that you may find awkward or triggering. Talking about these things, self-reflection and practicing interview scenarios will help prepare you. I think it's important to remember that we all have our moments of social anxiety, awkwardness, and areas that we find emotionally harder to deal with than others, so you are not alone. There is no definitive method, but being congruent with your own and others' emotions is important in qualitative research. Acknowledgement of emotion might just shift the tone if you reach a moment of perceived difficulty. Asking how someone is feeling and if they want to continue on that subject, is one way of handling things professionally. Or noticing your own feelings and agreeing whether to continue, come back to the topic, or move on altogether, might also be appropriate.
Above all, pay attention to your participant. Notice what you notice (Bateson, 2002). I've had people who spoke freely after the end of an interview and then clammed up when we agreed that the recorder should turned back on, or only spoke with relevance off the record. Some will only speak freely when good eye contact is maintained, and will lose their flow if you break it to write notes. Conversely, others seem to be stimulated by seeing you make notes. You must be flexible enough in your interactions and your data collection plan to allow for this. So what are your usual approaches to getting people to talk?
Please share your comments.
* I sometimes refer to the overall picture of the conditions of an interview as 'Atmospherics'. It includes reference to all above, and is included as a section for completion in my field notes. The mad dash to make field notes after an interview ends is common and it forms invaluable data.
Gregory Bateson (2002) Mind and Nature: a necessary unity. Hampton Press. New Jersey. (Originally published 1979, Dutton).
Image attribution: Photo by Cliff Booth from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/women-sitting-on-the-couch-chatting-4057863/ Creative Common Licence.
This article first appeared on the blog for Quirkos.com 6 March 2023. It is reproduced here with minor changes of syntax and removal of tabulation, and with the kind permission of Daniel Turner. Director of Quirkos. https://www.quirkos.com/blog/post/conversation-analysis-psychology-qualitative-research/