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‘Tis the Season to Do Some Qualitative Interviewing!

Posted by on December 9th, 2016 Posted in: Practical Evaluation, Qualitative Methods


For most of us, the end-of-year festivities are in full swing. We get to enjoy holiday treats. Lift a wine glass with colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Step back from the daily grind and enjoy some light-hearted holiday fun.

Or, we could take these golden holiday social events to work on our qualitative interviewing skills! That’s right.  I want to invite you to participate in another NEO’s holiday challenge: The Qualitative Interview challenge. (You can read about our Appreciative Inquiry challenge here.)

If you are a bit introverted and overwhelmed in holiday situations, this challenge is perfect for you. It will give you a mission: a task to take your mind off that social awkwardness you feel in large crowds. (Please tell me I’m not the only one!) If, on the other hand, you are more of a life-of-the-party guest, this challenge will help you talk less and listen more.  Other party-goers will love you and you might learn something.

Here’s your challenge.  Jot down some good conversational questions that fit typical categories of qualitative interview questions.  Commit a couple questions to memory before you hit a party. Use those questions to fuel conversations with fellow party-goers and see if you get the type of information you were seeking.

To really immerse yourself in this challenge, create a chart with the six categories of questions. (I provided an example below)  When your question is successful (i.e., you get the type of information you wanted), give yourself a star.  Sparkly star stickers are fun, but you can also simply draw stars beside the questions. Your goal is to get at least one star in each category by midnight on December 31.

Holiday challenge chart, There is a holiday border around a table-style chartt with the six categories of questions, the five extra credit techniques, and blank cells for stars

According to qualitative researcher/teacher extraordinaire Michael Q. Patton, there are six general categories of qualitative interview questions.  Here are categories:

  • Experience or behavior questions: Ask people to tell you a story about something they experienced or something they do. For unique experiences, you might say “Describe your best holiday ever.” You could ask about more routine behavior, such as “What traditions do you try to always celebrate during the holidays?”
  • Sensory questions: Sensory questions are similar to experience questions, but they focus on what people see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. Questions about holiday meals or vacation spots will likely elicit sensory answers.
  • Opinion and value questions: If you ask people what they think about something, you will hear their opinions and values. When Charlie Brown asked “What is the true meaning of Christmas?” he was posing a value/opinion question.
  • Emotions questions: Here, you ask people to express their emotional reactions. Emotions questions can be tricky. In my experience, most people are better at expressing opinions than emotions, so be prepared to follow up.  For example, if you ask me “What do you dislike about the holiday season?” I might say “I don’t like gift-shopping.”   “Like” is more of an opinion word than an emotion word. You want me to reach past my brain and into my heart. So you could follow-up with “How do you feel when you’re shopping for holiday gifts?”  I might say “The crowds frustrate and exhaust me” or “I feel stressed out trying to find perfect gifts on a deadline.“ Now I have described my emotions around gift-shopping. Give yourself a star!
  • Knowledge questions: These questions seek factual information. For example, you might ask for tried-and-true advice to make holiday travel easier. If answers include tips for getting through airport security quickly or the location of clean gas station bathrooms on the PA Turnpike, you asked a successful knowledge question.
  • Background and demographic questions: These questions explore how factors such as ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status, occupation, or religion affect one’s experiences and world view. What foods do their immigrant grandparents cook for New Year’s celebrations every year?  What is it like to be single during the holidays? How do religious beliefs or practices affect their approach to the holidays? These are examples of background/demographic questions.

To take this challenge up a notch, try to incorporate the following techniques while practicing interview skills over egg nog.

Ask open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions can be answered with a word or phrase.  “Did you like the movie?”  The answer “Yes” or “No” is a comprehensive response to that question.   An open-ended version of this question might be “Describe  a good movie you saw recently.”  If you phrased your question so that your conversation partner had to string together words or sentences to form an answer, give yourself an extra star.

Pay attention to question sequence:  The easiest questions for people to answer are those that ask them to tell a story. The act of telling a story helps people get in touch with their opinions and feelings about something.  Also, once you have respectfully listened to their story, they will feel more comfortable sharing opinions and feelings with you. So break the ice with experience questions.

Wait for answers:  Sometimes we ask questions, then don’t wait for a response.  Some people have to think through an answer completely before they talk out loud. Those seconds of silence make me want to jump in with a rephrased question. The problem is, you’ll start the clock again as they contemplate the new version of your question. To hold myself back, I try to pay attention to my own breathing while maintaining friendly eye contact.

Connect and support: You get another star if you listened carefully enough to accurately reflect their answers back to them. This is called reflective listening.  If you want a fun tutorial on how to listen, check out Julian Treasure’s TEDtalk.

Some of you are likely thinking “Thanks but no thanks for this holiday challenge.” Maybe it seems too much like work. Maybe you plan to avoid social gatherings like the plague this season.  Fair enough.  All of the tips apply to bona fide qualitative interviews. When planning and conducting qualitative interviews, remember to include questions that target different types of information. Make your questions open-ended and sequence them so they are easy to answer.  Listen carefully and connect with your interviewee by reflecting back what you heard.

Regardless of whether you take up the challenge or not, I wish you happy holidays full of fun and warm conversations.

My source for interview question types and interview techniques was  Patton MQ. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods.  4th ed.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015.

Image of the author ABOUT Cindy Olney
Cindy Olney is the Assistant Director of the NNLM Evaluation Office. She leads NNLM's evaluation efforts, designs evaluation methods, and guides analysis and reporting of evaluation findings.

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