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How to conduct an interview

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Before the Interview:

  • Know what you want to achieve or find out from the interview
  • Plan your questions carefully, paying attention to language, form and intelligibility and then the order of questioning.
  • Test your questions to ensure that they can be easily understood and there is no ambiguity.
  • Set up the interview in advance in a polite, organised manner. Typically you will telephone your interviewee, introduce yourself and then explain briefly and simply the project you are doing and what you'd like to interview them about. Arrange the time and place and how long the interview will take. Respond to any questions or uncertainty in a polite, objective and simple way. Clarify issues of confidentiality relating to what may be disclosed in the interview, and as it relates to the subsequent use of the information, such as publication.

At the Interview:

  • Find a place that is comfortable for the interviewee, often their home or work space. Try to ensure that it is quiet and private.
  • Be polite and professional. Adopt a friendly manner to ensure that the interviewee is set at ease. You want your respondent to be cooperative, answer your questions, talk easily and honestly.
  • When you meet, introduce yourself clearly and deliberately, establish eye contact and shake hands if appropriate.
  • Remember, you only have a short time for the interview and you have to gain trust and acceptance very quickly. Therefore think about your demeanour, and what you can say to "break the ice". If you look tense your respondent will probably feel ill at ease. A warm, accepting comment can help to put your interviewee at ease.
  • Think about what you will say to get the respondent's attention and interest in the topic that you are going to focus on.
  • Reiterate issues relating to the confidentiality of the interview to build trust.
  • Very briefly, explain the purpose of the interview and what sort of information you'd like your participant to share. Try to be as honest as possible, while leaving space for an honest and undirected response. Don't tell too much - You do not want to influence the response by indicating what you believe or what you think is acceptable.
  • In these first few minutes you are establishing a rapport. Only if you do this successfully will your respondent give you spontaneous and honest answers.
  • Use language that is simple and clear. Ask each question in a deliberate manner, trying your utmost to avoid ambiguity. Be sure to keep eye contact with your interviewee, and see that your body language is relaxed. Check that you are standing comfortably, shoulders down, and hands in a relaxed pose. Speak slowly and pitch your voice loudly enough to be clearly heard. Practise in front of a mirror to ensure that you look comfortable and unstressed.
  • If a question is not clear to the interviewee, you can offer additional clarification or explanation, or perhaps simplify the language or concepts.
  • Make every effort to allow the respondent to answer without prompt or direction - don't bias the response!
  • Listen carefully - so that you can hear what the respondent is saying and not what you think they could or should be saying. Don't finish their words or sentences for them
  • If you are unsure of the meaning of what the respondent has said, gently question to probe further or ask for additional clarification or elaboration. Sometimes allowing a short silence can act as a probe too, and encourage further response. Often, just repeating back what the interviewee has said to you will spark additional disclosure.
  • Ensure that you remain objective throughout and do not offer opinions, judgements or advice.

To end the Interview

  • At the end of the interview, establish closure. When you feel that the respondent has answered your questions and that you have given them an adequate opportunity to provide any additional information and comment, bring the interview to an end.
  • Show appreciation and thank the interviewee for the time they have given you. Let them know that you may need to go back to them at a later date for further clarification, and check that they are happy with that.
  • Allow a few minutes for polite conversation. Often the interviewee is interested in the study and your work.
  • Sometimes the interviewee will disclose considerable information after the interview is complete and as you are actually leaving. If appropriate to the study, listen carefully at this point, and respond with objectivity but empathically; it is often sensitive material that could not emerge during the interview. In this case, make notes after you have left.

Here is an exercise to help you practise so that you will engage in the interview feeling confident.

For example:

I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Mary Black - please call me Mary.

For example:

I appreciate you making the time to meet, I know that you are working long hours at present. Your directions were excellent and I found my way really easily. What a delightful garden...

For example:

I have been researching mothers and their babies and you tell me you have a six month old son, and a three year old daughter. You've obviously had a lot of mothering experience. I am really interested to hear your opinions and attitudes on these parenting matters.

Sit in front of a mirror with your tape recorder, your prepared interview questions and a note book.

Check your body language in the mirror: are your legs or arms crossed, or posed in a way that suggests tension? - Relax! Practice sitting in a relaxed manner and smile.

Now turn on your tape recorder and record yourself introducing yourself and asking the first two questions.

Turn off the tape recorder and listen to a playback of your recording. Take your note book and be your own critic. Write down three points praising what you did well and three aspects of your interview that you you were not happy with and could improve.

Have a good look at the elements you think you need to improve. Was it voice pitch, clarity? Practise addressing each one in turn.

Turn on your tape recorder once again and now tape the next three questions as you ask them to your mirror image. Remember to look at yourself in the mirror as you ask the questions, engage and smile if the topic is not too serious. Turn off the tape recorder and listen to yourself, again writing notes of three positive aspects and three aspects that can be improved.

Continue this exercise until you feel that you have made significant improvement in your manner of interacting and conversing in this situation and feel confident to meet with a stranger.

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