Ask Humble Questions for Interviewing Magic
Here is an excellent quote from the New York Times’ Ana Marie Cox in her farewell commentary after two years of conducting in-depth interviews with famous people for the weekly “Talk” column:
Being a good interviewer takes skill, just not the skill most people assume: You don’t have to be able to ask or come up with great questions. You need patience and humility. The more focus you put on asking a great question, the more it’s about you, and that shows. An interviewee can tell, and it detracts from that gentle magic that focused curiosity can work.
This insight reminds me of Cox’s recent interview with Billy Eichner, which we showcased last month in an article Just Let Go for Great Qualitative Interviews. Eichner suggested that good interviews happen when the interviewer lets go of the plan. The interviewer’s job is to guide and shape a conversation so that it stays focused on relevant and interesting material. But to land on that interesting material, you need to let the other person guide the conversation to an extent that is often uncomfortable.
How do you actually achieve all this? We have been doing similar interviews for over twenty years, for all kinds of academic research, business research, and thought leadership research. Here are three ideas based on our own experiences for how to achieve the “focused curiosity” that Cox recommends for generating interviewing magic:
- Know your interviewing guide inside and out. Commit it almost to memory. That way you can focus your thinking on the conversation rather than on the sequence of questions and topics you’ve laid out. No matter how far along I am on a project, I always read the interview guide yet again from beginning to end before actually conducting an interview.
- Listen intently and deeply knowing that buried beneath the surface of what a respondent says there are nuggets of insight you will discover only with thoughtful, well-timed probes like, “Will you tell me more about that?” or “Can you give me some examples of what you just described?”
- Admit what you do not know and use that as a springboard for deeper conversation. Usually, about half way through an interview, I begin sharing with the respondent (sparingly!) some of the puzzles and questions that motivate my interest in talking with them. Bringing them alongside as a collaborator nearly always prompts them to share more information and a deeper layer of insight.
Be humble, be curious, be patient. Trust that the alchemy of all three will work magic for your in-depth interviews.
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Killer Quotes from Research Respondents
The Pitfalls of Auto-Coding Text Responses