7 skills for highly effective research interviews

‘Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.’ Stephen R Covey.

This quote is taken from Stephen R Coveys book – 7 habits of highly effective people. It’s a great quote and probably accurately describes a high proportion of both professional and personal communication. We can all learn more about improving our conversational skills at work and home and there is lots of great advice out there for having better conversations. But there is something very specific about listening for research purposes.  A great research interview should have most if not the entire focus on understanding and not really replying at all.

So here are our 7 skills for highly effective research interviews

1. Build rapport. Don’t skimp on the introductions and general chat, find out something about your respondents, have a social chat to start things off – where have they come from? What would they normally be doing instead of talking to you?  You want your respondents to be comfortable, they aren’t coming for a job interview, they are here to help you find out stuff.

2. Be completely present.  You have to be the most present person in the room, learn to put aside any mind distractions. You may have had a nightmare journey to run your focus group, have left a crying toddler at home and be worried about the last train home.  You have to learn to put that out of your mind and be completely focused.  If you aren’t you’ll miss things, and if you aren’t focused then your respondents can’t be either.

3. Curb boredom and don’t make presumptions.  Ok so this is two points but they are linked so I’ve put them together.  Boredom happens – particularly on big projects where you’re interviewing tons of people. It’s natural to be slightly less interested and enthused at the end of your project than at the beginning. But remember your respondents need to feel that you’re hearing everything for the first time so work on your game face.  Also you may think you know what people are going to say but in reality you just never know – even if it’s your 100th interview on the same subject, you just might uncover that gem of insight that pulls it all together.

4. Learn to be comfortable with silence. Silence can be golden, it gives breathing and thinking space. Don’t panic if people don’t answer immediately or there is a lull in the conversation.  Don’t try and fill the silence. A good interviewer is comfortable with silence.  Of course if it goes on too long you may need to ask another question or ask why your question was so difficult to answer – but don’t rush.

5. Don’t try and teach people.   A research interview is about finding out what people think and feel – even if you think (or know) they have got some facts wrong. It’s what they think or believe and this is what you are trying to find out.  A research interview is not the place to teach people (or tell them they’re wrong) but a place to explore where their ideas and knowledge have come from.

6. Show empathy but do not share experience.  Peoples’ experiences are unique. Just because you may have had a similar experience the research interview is not the place to share it and tell your story – it takes the focus away from your respondents and this should be all about them. Don’t steal their thunder.

 7. Be respectful of differences.  In research we don’t always agree with our researcher respondents, we have to hide our personal views and feelings and listen and explore without judgement.  Don’t get into an argument or debate.  If the subject matter is too close to home, then maybe you aren’t the best person to be doing the interview.

Of course there are more than 7 skills, but hopefully these cover some of the foundations for great research conversations.