“Just Let Go” for Great Qualitative Interviews
A really good qualitative researcher knows how hard (and how frustrating) it can be to get respondents to tell us things we want to know. We have our interview guide, with all our questions laid out in a nice logical progression. But often when we ask questions, respondents have less to say than we had hoped. Or we find that our questions are too weird or too abstract or too embedded in the context of our thinking instead of in the context of their experience.
But have you ever experienced the thrill of finishing a truly superb in-depth interview? If you have, chances are you let go of your interview guide. And you will recognize this sentiment from Billy Eichner, a comedian and television interviewer, being interviewed by Ana Marie Cox of the New York Times:
What makes a good interview for you? I might have jokes in my head, but the best interactions come when I listen to the person’s response. I let go of whatever my plan might have been, and I meet this person where they are, and I let them lead me wherever they want to go, to a certain extent. It always bothers me when I watch interviews — even serious ones on a news program — and there are no follow-up questions, and the journalist sticks to their plan, and they don’t let the conversation guide them.
For researchers, it can be hard to let go, but it is, to a certain extent, essential. People’s lives and thoughts and insights don’t usually fit our plans. So we need to let our respondents offer their ideas on their own terms, trusting that we can put them back into alignment with our plans later on.
Of course, as Eichner notes, letting respondents lead the way doesn’t mean letting them take you anywhere. It is all “to a certain extent,” because you are still in charge of guiding and shaping and keeping the discussion on point.
Trust yourself. If you know your interview guide inside and out, almost from memory, you can often set it aside and let your research respondent lead the way.