What is a good interview?

What’s a good interview? The question arose in a Twitter exchange and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. To my irritation, I still haven’t got a simple, clear answer. This is why I decided to write about it.

So, I thought that perhaps a useful way would be to consider what a bad interview is. As ever, I don’t want to write about interviews in general, only my experience of them. I want to write about mistakes I made. I do realise at the same time that this post might be nothing new under the sun.

And so here is my quick and personal guide to how not to interview your informants.

1. Speaking too much. I discovered this when I had my first stab at interviewing. When listening to recordings I could not believe how many times I interrupted the informants, with no regard to what they were saying. To make matters worse, I was completely unaware of it, I was confident that the interviews were wonderful. It was painful how bad some of my interviews were.

2. Asking stupid questions. A large category that starts with asking a number of questions at the same time, all the way to asking questions which had already been answered. You can, of course, find a number of other things not to say, from leading questions

3. Not concentrating. I never expected how cognitively taxing interviewing is. Points 2 and 3 are partly results of lapses in concentration. But not concentrating goes further, it’s also about your posture, gestures, voice pitch. For me, it is in particular about once looking at my watch. It was automatic, I just wanted to keep track of time. And yet, my informant noticed it and said something like “We’re finishing, aren’t we?” and was ready to go. It took quite a number of apologies and assurances that we were not finishing and we had all the time we needed. I think the man relaxed after about 10-15 minutes, but I am not entirely sure. I simply relaxed too much into thinking I was an experienced interviewer.

4. Not preparing enough. This is an aspect of all of the above points, but it’s worth perhaps making it separate. What is the interview about? What is the questioning strategy, how do you want to structure the questions (I tend to structure the interviews as two funnels)? In fact, you can start with the considering whether you want to ask questions in the first place. In fact, I have conducted interviews without asking a single question.

So, these are the main issues I encountered when interviewing informants. I tried to make them large enough to include all the mistakes I’ve made. And, let me stress, they are legion. The question I want to ask  now is this: if I remove all those issues, if I avoid all those mistakes, will the interview be good? The disappointing answer is… no. I have already written (Interviewing misery) about two research projects in which I took a different approach to interviewing. The technically good, almost mistake-free interviews were nowhere near as good as those which in which I was much more engaged emotionally, but also became an emotional wreck. There was some ineffable quality to those interviews. My informants and I clicked, we had rapport, time and again, they expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to talk. To be completely honest, I still have no idea how that was achieved, I am not certain I can ever achieve this again.

So, we’re left with the question of whether good interviews are those which are achieved by this ‘something’, they are an art which is realised by the ‘ineffable’? That would not be good news, would it? But the really bad news is that it’s not all.

This is because interviews are co-produced. I still remember an interview a long time ago which lasted about 2-3 minutes. No matter how I tried, no matter what I said, my interviewee, who did agree to take part, said nothing, offering only sounds like ‘mmmm’. But she did answer one question: “You don’t want to talk, do you?”, she said: “No’. This was the only answer I received.

Thank goodness, the co-production of interviews also works the other way around. No matter how stupid your question is, if your informant really wants to tell you something, they will. They will simply ignore your stupid question and continue with their story. And the good interview is one which makes it possible.

Gosh, have I reached an approximation of a good interview? Well, sort of. But before I end, let me tell you a story. I was interviewed twice, perhaps three times. The topic was, partly, my work and my working practices. Even though I was not asked to disclose anything very sensitive, I was not asked to say anything that would make me very vulnerable, the experience was not comfortable at all. Nothing major, but still I was leaving my sometimes strongly held views on tape, views which sometimes went against the grain of what’s commonly accepted. I was still leaving my stories with someone who could make use of them in any way they wanted. And that wasn’t easy. But I asked people to tell me stories which were considerably more difficult! My interviewee experience not only made me appreciate all the interviews I received much more deeply, I also understood more all those who refused.

As an interviewer, I cannot make my informants talk, I cannot make them like me, I cannot even promise to sit and empathise with them, achieving the ‘ineffability’. In my view, good interviews should not be ‘measured’ by its length, by meeting the interviewer’s expectations, by getting more or less interesting stories. In my view, a good interview is one which makes it possible for the interviewee to share their stories. But offering this opportunity doesn’t mean that it will be taken. We, interviewers, must remember that telling us a story often requires a leap of faith which we, ourselves, would never take.

The final question is how to create the opportunity for the individual who is sitting in front of you. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a clear answer to it. Yet.



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