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How to... conduct interviews

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Conducting the interview

It is common to talk about "staging" an interview, because even if the interviewer is being non directive, he or she needs to set up conditions where the interviewee can be as relaxed as possible and thereby yield the best possible quality of data. There is thus an element of artificiality, which both differentiates the interview from an ordinary conversation, and ensures reliability of data, because you are setting up conditions which guarantee the best research results. The staging element needs to be borne in mind from the point where the interviewer is setting up the interview through the actual "conversation" to the point where the interview is concluded.

Practical considerations

You will need to agree with the participants the following:

  • The date and time of the interview.
  • The duration of the interview – less than an hour may be difficult to cover issues in depth, more than two hours will be difficult to sustain concentration.
  • The place of the interview – should be somewhere quiet and conducive to concentration. At the beginning of the interview, negotiate that telephones be turned off, also arrange for seating to be informal, for example facing chairs (if the interview takes place in the CEO's office, try and arrange it in the part of his or her room reserved for informal interviews, rather than being separated by a desk).
  • The recording of the interivew – if you want to tape record, you should ask permission.
  • The purpose of the interview – explain the background of the research, if necessary sending your subject a brief explanatory paper.
  • The conditions under which you will use the interview data – most particularly, you should ensure confidentiality.

The stages of the interview

Conducting an interview is a bit like diving: you start off on the surface, then go deeper, and then come up for air at the end. There are a number of stages:

Arrival and introduction

The first task of the interviewer on arriving is to put the participant, who may be nervous, at ease, and establish rapport. The conversation should be on neutral subjects, completely unconnected with the actual topic of the interview.

When you are both relaxed, introduce the purpose of the interview within the context of the research. You may well have sent the participant some information, but the chances are he or she may not have had a proper chance to look at it. This is the time to establish the 'housekeeping' procedures – is the seating arrangement suitable, can you forestall any interruptions, do you have permission to record, what will happen after the interview etc. Reiterate the fact that the discussion will be confidential.

The interview

Begin the interview with general questions that define terms and provide contextual information for what follows. By asking easier questions, you will be able to guage how the participant responds, and how you should approach the interview, before the conversation becomes too deep and complex.

Once you have the necessary background information, it is time to get into the "meat" of the interview, and move from the general to the particular. Here you will be following either pre-set questions or some sort of interview schedule, both of which will relate to the key research questions to which you are trying to find answers. You may have to ask supplementary questions in order to make sure that the topics are fully covered, and that you probe in sufficient depth to get below the surface. You may also need to "explain" certain questions by providing a link with the research.

Ending the interview

Signal the end of the interview by some such conversational device as "and moving on to the final topic". Make sure that the participant has no buring issues which have not been covered, and particularly if the interview has been sensitive, that there is no "unfinished business". Thank the participant for their time, and say how their contribution will help the research.

Facilitating rapport: the interviewer-interviewee relationship

We considered earlier (Characteristics of a good interviewer) the qualities that the interviewer needs to have. The key role of the researcher is to be a neutral observer who can make tacit assumptions explicit, and reveal what is otherwise hidden, even to the subject. The role of the participant is quite simply, to open up, and talk as freely as possible, whilst not deviating too much from the interests of the research. Here are some pointers and techniques to make that more likely to happen.

  • Show interest: maintain eye contact with the participant, nod, smile, ask follow-up questions.
  • Be non judgemental: don't indicate disapproval, emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers.
  • Be neutral, and don't be drawn into making comments or into argument: if asked for an opinion, respond with some comment such as "It's not my opinions that we are interested in here"; if they come up with something controversial, respond by throwing the issue back at them, "Why do you think that?"
  • Look for non verbal clues: for example, if the participant appears doubtful, and if so, try and probe further.
  • Make sure that you are entirely clear about what is being said: if not, ask for clarification.
  • However tempting it may be by way of encouragement, don't put words into the participant's mouth, finish sentences for them, or summarise what they have just said: ask another question.
  • Be prepared gently to steer the conversation back to the topic if it veers off into areas that are not relevant to the research, but if you interrupt, do so gently ("I wonder if I could just bring you back to"... "What I really meant was...").
  • Pace the interview, ensuring that you don't spend too long on one topic at the expense of others.

has a useful section on conducting the interview in his article "Research Interviews" (New Library World , vol. 97 no. 5).

Dealing with problems in interviews

Here are some of the possible problems which can occur in interviews and suggestions as to how to respond to them:

The interview gets onto sensitive areas
If the interview has to deal with sensitive issues, or if the participant has a strong emotional reaction, it is especially important to stay calm, to be empathic without getting drawn in to a counselling situation. Acknowledge the difficulty of the topic, and if the participant breaks down, invite a break and switch off the tape recorder. If the interviewee becomes angry, don't take it personally: try and get them to share their feelings.

The interviewee appears very anxious
Spend more time putting them at their ease, and on introductory and general questions.

The interviewee tries to dominate the agenda by for example answering questions of their choice, or repeatedly coming back to particular points
Acknowledge the importance of the points they are making, but try and gently bring them back to the topic.

The interviewee rambles
Gently interrupt, bringing them back to the point with another, perhaps more direct, question.

The interviewee is silent
Don't be put off by silences: the participant may need the silence to come up with a deeper response. On the other hand, it's important to keep the discussion going, and to make sure that it doesn't peter out.

The interviewee tries to direct questions back to the interviewer
Be warm, but don't disclose too much about yourself. This is not like a real conversation: the spotlight is definitely on the participant. Volunteering too much information can distract the participant from talking about themselves.