A successful interview requires a great deal from the interviewer. As well as deciding in the first instance that an interview will be the most suitable way to address particular research questions, you will need to decide which type of interview to conduct (un-, semi-, or structured). You will then need to design the questions, select the interview sample and make arrangements for the interviews to be conducted (venue, date, times etc). In addition, the skill that the interviewer demonstrates in the interview itself and the rapport that is built with the interviewee is crucial to the success of the interview as research.
"The interviewer is him- or herself the research instrument."
As the interviewer, you will need to be an expert in the subject of the interview. You will need to be able to make quick decisions about what to ask and how you will ask it. You will need to know how to interpret your interviewee's answers and if necessary how to follow up on them. The interview itself is a social interaction and a specific form of conversation whichever type of interview you choose to undertake and despite the location of your interview. The interviewer and interviewee will influence each other. This interaction is crucial to the success of your interview. The effect of this relationship on the quality of your results cannot be underestimated.
Common interviewer mistakes
- External interruptions
- Competing distractions such as children
- Stage fright for either the interviewer or interviewee
- Asking the interviewee embarrassing or awkward questions
- Jumping from one subject to another
- Teaching the interviewee i.e. giving advice
- Counselling the interviewee
- Presenting one's own opinion and possibly biasing the interviewee
- An interview that appears superficial
- Receiving serious, secret information (such as criminal activity)
- Translation inaccuracies
The above list of common mistakes made by interviewers are taken from Britten (1995). Planning, preparation and practise are the best ways to overcome these common problems.
Building good rapport
What is rapport?
"A friendly relationship in which people understand each other very well."
Oxford English Dictionary (2006)
Building a rapport with the interviewee is important in order to get the best out of them. They must feel comfortable in your presence, enough to be able to answer your questions openly, honestly and truthfully. In order to do this they must trust you with the information that they provide.
Building rapport is a balancing act and really something that is achieved through practise and experience. It is important to remain objective and professional and not to end up counselling the interviewee.
"A leading question is one that is asked in a particular way in order to get the answer you want."
Oxford English Dictionary (2006)
The use of leading questions should be avoided in a qualitative interview as they can clearly affect the results of the research by leading the interviewee into giving the answer that you want to hear or rather the answer that they think you want to hear! This can adversely affect the validity of your research.
In addition to avoiding leading questions you might want to consider how much information that you give to the interviewee about your research before the interview. You should take care to avoid leading the interview as a whole. For example, you might not tell the interviewee what you hope to find out or what you think the result will be but may tell them what you are investigating.
Interviewer bias occurs when the behaviour or social characteristics of the interviewer distort the responses of the interviewee. Given that 'the interviewer is him- or herself the research instrument' (Kvale 1996) it should be noted that 'for a research instrument to be reliable it must consistently measure what it set out to measure' (Gray 2004). It is important not only to be consistent with the questions but also with the way that the questions are asked of each interviewee. This includes such things as words and phrases used, time given to each interviewee to answer, tone of voice etc. The only way to be certain of avoiding interviewer bias is to standardise the questions and the interviewer! This is of course virtually impossible particularly where semi-, or unstructured interviews are used. Additionally, what if you need to repeat or clarify a question - could that lead to bias? It is up to the interviewer to minimise any bias as far as possible by using their common sense and interview skills in the interview situation.
Active listening involves attentive listening that listens not only to the words being said but also to the tone and emphasis. If you are listening actively you will be able to pick up any new or significant themes contained within your interviewee's response. Additionally, you will be able to make sure that the interviewee gives a full explanation.
For example, consider the following exchange as adapted from Gray 2004:
Interviewer: Could you tell me something about your feelings when voluntary redundancies were called for?
Interviewee: The request for redundancies came in a letter to all of us just before Christmas last year. They were asking for 200 people to go, out of a workforce of just 850. Quite a few people I know were very interested in the package on offer from day one.
On first inspection, the interviewee seems to have given quite a full answer. On further inspection however, it is clear from the question that the interviewer asked, that he wanted to find out about the interviewee's feelings. The answer given is quite factual and makes no reference to how the interviewee felt personally.
It is imperative that you are able to spot this kind of answer by listening actively to what the interviewee is saying and not just switching off as soon as they begin to speak, satisfied that the interviewee is answering the question. During the interview you will be able to rephrase your question or ask further questions until the interviewee explains how they felt. If you only notice at a later date whilst transcribing your interview it will be too late to do anything about it.
Checklist of interview do's and don'ts
|Establish clearly what the interviewee thinks
||Do not give an indication to the interviewee of your meanings and understandings or appear to judge their responses
|Provide a balance between open and closed questions
||Do not ask leading questions or questions to which it is easy for interviewees to simply agree with all you say
|Listen carefully to all responses and follow up points that are not clear
||Do not rush on to the next question before thinking about the last response
|If necessary, either to gain thinking time for yourself or clarity for the audio recording, repeat the response
||Do not respond with a modified version of the response, but repeat exactly what was said
|Give the interviewee plenty of time to respond
||Do not rush, but do not allow embarrassing silences
|Where interviewees express doubts or hesitate, probe them to share their thinking
||Avoid creating the impression that you would prefer some kinds of answers rather than others
|Be sensitive to possible misunderstandings about questions, and if appropriate repeat the question
||Do not make any assumptions about the ways in which the interviewee might be thinking
|Be aware that the respondent may make self-contradictory statements
||Do not forget earlier responses during the interview
|Try to establish an informal atmosphere
||Do not interrogate the interviewee
|Be prepared to abandon the interview if it is not working
||Do not continue if the respondent appears agitated, angry or withdrawn
Taken from Gray (2004) pg. 229
One way to test your skills as an interviewer is to run pilot interviews before starting the real thing and asking for (constructive) feedback. You might like to use this appraisal form during your pilot or practise interview. It is a MS Word document that you can save, add to and print. It will allow the interviewee to give you feedback on your performance as an interviewer. It might be a good idea to carry out at least one practise interview with your supervisor or someone who is experienced in interviewing in order to gain feedback from a 'professional' perspective.