A tale of two interviews

Our anonymous author approached the Research Whisperers with this post about disrupted research interview expectations and the importance of approaching these encounters with an open mind. This is a lesson at the heart of all research, but it can be easy to build up presumptions around our skills and expertise. 

Having our intellectual expectations upended can be confronting and frustrating, but it can also be enlightening about the topic and ourselves.

Speech bubbles at Erg by Marc Walthieu | flickr.com | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Speech bubbles at Erg by Marc Walthieu | flickr.com | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’m conducting interview-based research on a complex social problem in Australia, and I had the opportunity to interview a woman I’d been looking forward to meeting for some time.

She was the CEO of an organisation that delivers services to a marginalised group, which was an important perspective for one of my case studies. I knew she held some views on my research topic that were very similar to my own, which can help with rapport.

I expected it to be a positive experience.  It ended up being the most uncomfortable interview I’ve ever conducted, for this or any other project.

The awkwardness started before we even sat down, when I held out my hand in greeting and she (let’s call her P01) went in for a kiss on the cheek. Not the way research interviews in office settings are usually kicked off! Once we were seated, one of her first comments was that she doesn’t normally participate in research interviews, so I should feel lucky, and that she had agreed to do it this time because she could tell that I supported the organisation’s work. Also, could we keep it to 40 minutes? I assured her that very much appreciated her time, and quietly panicked at how unwelcoming this little exchange felt.

I started asking my questions, which she answered quite briefly and directly, occasionally chuckling or waiting for me to reframe my words into an actual question before responding. In my experience, participants usually respond at length at the mere mention of a topic (without necessarily waiting for me to ask a question), so muted alarm bells continued to ring. 

But the real problems started about 18 minutes in, when she laughed and said “you’re asking me some really weird questions”. Disaster!

I felt the need to start explaining why I was asking certain things, to justify myself in case she thought I was wasting her time with pointless questions. I’m sure what I was doing could technically be called ‘babbling’.

Eventually, I decided to confront the issue. I mentally took a deep breath and said:

Researcher: Some of my questions, it seems, you think they’re weird.
P01: Yeah, I know.
Researcher: Yeah, so can we talk about that a bit, because I don’t want you to think that I’m wasting your time, and some of my questions might not work for you-
P01: Yeah
Researcher: -so, I mean you can tell me what questions to ask you, or you can just talk.
P01: No, no, no, it’s alright, I’m trying to have- I’m actually just having a conversation with you.
Researcher: Yep, OK, sure.
P01: They’re just really big questions.
Researcher: Yes they are, they are big questions.
P01: Like I don’t- without kind of thinking about how I might be able to break it down to give you an answer in one minute or something like that is really difficult to capture everything that you’re wanting to know, so that’s why I’m kind of- I’m struggling a bit.

So, there were probably two things going on here. “I’m just trying to have a conversation with you” indicates that she may have wanted there to be more back and forth, whereas I had expected (based on previous experiences) to have more of a steering role, asking occasional questions but mostly listening.

She was also clearly surprised about the breadth of my questions, perhaps having expected more specific questions about the details of what her organisation does. She wanted to give me practical answers, and I was asking questions that were difficult to chunk down in practical ways.

She might have been better able to answer me if I she’d had more of a sense of what to expect beforehand, but as is often the case when you ‘study up’, busy executives usually have pre-interview formalities handled by assistants, meaning they often don’t read the participant information statement before the interview and you have to talk them through it. This usually isn’t a problem, as I find that because I generally do research on subject matter experts, participants tend to answer at length regardless of how prepared they are. However, here was a reminder to try to make sure that participants are aware a few days beforehand of the general shape of my questions – clearly, participants can be thrown by questions no matter how expert they are.

We got through an agonising 40 minutes – my shortest interview to date. By the end, I was reaching for new questions to ask, because her answers were so short and my usual methods of probing (e.g. “can you say a bit more about that?”) weren’t working.

The interview ended on a final uncomfortable note, when I asked what she meant when she used a particular term, and she laughed again and said “I don’t understand the question”. She was very anxious that I ensure the recording remained confidential and would be deleted after transcription, and that she had an opportunity to check the transcript.

This experience left me rattled. Clearly, my questions had not connected with her, and our interview had not worked on an interpersonal level. I examined my behaviour minutely – did I just suck as an interviewer? Was part of the awkwardness to do with me, arguably a member of the oppressive class, doing or saying the wrong thing in the context of an issue that is so problematic for a marginalised segment of the community?

I was particularly worried because a few days later I was due to interview another executive (P02) from the same sector, and very much wanted to avoid repeating this experience. Further, I knew P02 had some views I did not agree with, and I hoped to avoid offending her by accidentally letting out that I disagreed.

I can report, however, that interview #2 could not have been more different from interview #1. P02 and I had a rapport from the start, where conversation was easy and she responded positively to my questions and remarks. I did not get the sense that she was confused, defensive or hostile about anything I asked. She gave full answers to all of my questions without prompting. Even though my questions were similarly ‘big’ to those I had asked P01, this participant had answers ready – she’d clearly thought about the big picture, despite also not having read the information form beforehand. At the end, she thanked me for the opportunity to reflect on her experiences with my subject matter.

The amazing thing about this experience was that I quite strongly disagreed with many of the things she said, even more than I’d expected beforehand. So I was left with the interesting realisation that I’d had a terrible experience interviewing someone I agreed with, and a positive experience interviewing someone whose views were in some ways diametrically opposed to my own (as well as an overwhelming sense of relief that I wasn’t a giant failure as an interviewer).

This highlights the complex nature of the factors that go into producing a ‘successful’ (or at least comfortable) interview. Previously, I’d felt most comfortable talking to people who I knew shared my views on certain things, because we could ‘riff’ on familiar concepts. But clearly there’s more to it than that. There must be something about how open a participant is to the interview process, and how willing they are to take a concept and talk around it without needing to be shepherded. There’s also the aspect of an uncomfortable start to an interview affecting my own behaviour as an interviewer, and this has can have subsequent effects that make the rest of the interview less easy and comfortable. Similarly, my behaviour at interview #2 was probably affected by the relief I felt at how well it was going compared to interview #1, thus creating a feedback loop of positive feelings and perhaps friendlier-seeming behaviour on my part.

Finally, I wondered if the power disparity I felt at being the PhD student who needed the participation of the CEO in order to do her research was experienced differently by P01 – or was even reversed. As a practical person faced daily by the need to implement real programs with real people hailing from a particular segment of the community, she may not have thought broadly about the landscape of this social problem in Australia. Perhaps she felt at a disadvantage, being asked broad conceptual or strategic questions by a researcher and not feeling prepared to answer them in a way that satisfied her.

I will probably never know why interview #1 went so badly, and why interview #2 went so comparatively well, but as an interpretive researcher it’s important to consider these questions.

After all, it depends on your definition of good and bad, and fodder for reflection is useful in itself! This is what I told myself as I thought of P01’s confused laugh and poured myself another glass of wine.


  1. So interesting and thank you for your honesty. Having conducted probably over 70 or 80 interviews with people in their capacity as individuals and in their work roles, and also worked as a telephone counsellor, I would say that some interviews do just suck and it’s hard to know why. Sometimes the person has just had a bad day, or the two of you have no chemistry and it puts the interviewee on edge, while at other times there may be professional concerns at play and they have an image they want to protect or issues they wish to hedge around and these anxieties emerge in their conduct in the interview. If you were having repeated problems I would seek advice / support from your supervisor or review my questions, but if it’s a one-off issue don’t worry too much about it – but do reflect on it in your field notes. The only thing I would say is that if you have the rare luxury of repeat interviews, these can really help. In one study I worked on I did repeat interviews (over a few months), and some people who were quite taciturn and not overly friendly at the first interview were much more forthcoming and relaxed at the second. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.