A number of skill problems are listed below to support you when interviewing someone. Click on your skill problem and find more detailed information how to deal more effectively with this skill problem related to interviewing and make it a skill advantage instead. The Skill Sheets book gives you even more detailed information on subjects related to interviewing persons.
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Specific preparation: setting the scene
- Background. Consider the background of your respondent:
- Do you know what your respondent’s (interest) position is in the organisation;
- Specify why this particular person is important for your interview. If you do not know about his/her background, allow some time during the interview to ask the respondent to explain this.
- Objectives. Set your interview objectives. Link them to the stage of the research that you are in (see above). Write down your objectives in short statements.
- State your possible ‘biases’, ‘hopes’, ‘fears’ and expectations regarding the interview. Doing this should enable you to avoid ‘reductive listening’ (D3).
- Think about how you could establish a ‘barter’ system for the interview: how can you compensate for the time which your respondent has ‘lost’? (A15).
- Impression. Think about the impression that you want to make in order to obtain information that you need. Decide on the style and/or ‘tone’ of the interview:
- friendly and inquisitive: you want to know his/her answers/opinion;
- searching: asking your respondent to become actively involved in your search process;
- confrontational, posing or assertive: if you check your information by challenging the interviewee to disclose interesting information, be prepared for a debate or even an argument instead of an interview.
- Introduction. Prepare a brief introduction about the research questions and the reason for the interview. It should not last longer than two to three minutes. If you are unable to do this, there is something wrong with your research question or with your presentation skills. Compose the introduction by using a few keywords, this will ensure that your presentation is spontaneous. Do not learn it by heart. This will lessen your ability to improvise. Formulating a good introduction will give you the appearance of being well prepared. You should also agree upon the amount of time approximately available for the interview during the introduction. The actual duration of the interview is often open to last-minute changes. Be prepared to be flexible.
- Interviewers. Limit the number of people conducting the interview. When more than one person conducts an interview, be aware of the risk that the interviewee may have the feeling of being ‘cross examined’. Furthermore, unstructured questions can be contradictory which gives a bad impression of the group. If you carry out an interview with two or more people first ascertain: (1) who will be the main person asking the questions, giving the introduction and finishing the interview, (2) who is responsible for elaborating notes (everyone takes notes as a rule, but only one person should take more time to elaborate them).
Contact the person either in writing or by phone (E*): repeat the aims of your research and the reason why you would like the interview. If you yourself do not already have a reputation in your chosen field, always try to offer the name of a referee: who advised you to contact this person. Confirm the date of the interview, supply a contact address in case the interviewee needs to cancel the interview.
Make reproducible notes while listening
Making notes while conducting an interview requires a lot of practice. You should be able to concentrate on what is being said while you are writing. The use of abbreviations is often necessary in order not to write all the time. Get used to a number of abbreviations, and symbols in order to be able to decipher different types of notes (C10):
- Use special codes (for example, * #) in the margin which indicate that this is your opinion - not the interviewees.
- If the respondent makes an interesting remark, use quotation marks when you register it. However, do not quote the respondent literally in your research report. The quotation marks should serve to indicate the relevance of the information to you at a later point in time.
- Write your commentary in your mother tongue if you conduct an interview in a foreign language.
Indicate immediately, in your notes, when you find a remark important or perhaps questionable. If you do this clearly, it will be easier to return to this point before finishing the interview.
The kind of questioning style you adopt depends on the impression and the atmosphere that you would like to create during the interview (D2). You should be familiar with the various categories, the drawbacks and the positive aspects, before you select a combination of techniques. Find out what kind of questions you feel comfortable with (Table D.4a). Check whether they are also effective for the purposes of your research.
Quickly write a (first) account of the interview
If you take notes during an interview it is important to write up those notes as soon as possible afterwards. If you wait too long it may be difficult for example to read your handwriting and/or understand the notes correctly (was this my own commentary or something that the respondent actually said?). Immediately after the interview try to find a place nearby where you can write up the first draft of your notes. Go through them and rewrite those passages which are difficult to read. Make a clear distinction between your own commentary and what you have heard from the interviewee. Work through the following points:
- Assign importance. Indicate which passages are of particular importance. Underline them with a coloured pen so that when you read the interview your attention will immediately focus on these parts.
- Identify your own commentary. Go through the codes in the margins and make sure that they are clear. Add additional commentary if you think that it is appropriate.
- List material received. Always make a separate list of the material (books, articles, brochures) that you have received. Soon you will not know which sources you collected yourself, and which ones were supplied by the respondent. The more generous the respondent has been, the more the same will be expected of you according to the principles of barter (A19).
- Formulate conclusions. Make a short decision list. You could use a separate box in which you note (a) what you promised to do, (b) what other appointments you have made, (c) a number of other conclusions that you would like to make instantly.
- Specify your impressions. Write down some of your immediate impressions regarding the effectiveness of the interview, and give yourself feedback on the effectiveness of your interviewing style.
Be disciplined when writing up a sequence of interviews
- Never wait long before writing up your interview notes in a presentable, typed format. Respecting this rule becomes more critical when you carry out a sequence of interviews in a short period of time. Always write up the notes on the day of the interview.
- If you let two or three days pass by, you will probably experience difficulty reading your own handwriting or you will be unable to remember all of the things that you have not written down. But if you rewrote the notes immediately you would be able to remember these things without difficulty.
- After several days, other impressions and information, which you receive from other people, begin to mix with your interview results, creating an enormous problem in identifying from whom you received the information.
- Writing up the notes during a trip gives you the satisfaction of having your report finished before - or on the same day as - your arrival. Once you come back to your own country, it is far more difficult to write up the notes because your familiar surroundings will create new distracting demands. You will have told the story of your travel already several times. Writing down what you have already presented to people is repetitious, boring and therefore creates motivation problems.