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Tips for Conducting Qualitative Interviews

Think for a minute about your best job interview experience. What made it stand out? The respect, the warmth, the empathy, the knowledge gained and shared? All of these are elements of a successful job interview and they are also critical elements of conducting a successful qualitative interview. A qualitative interview is a method of collecting non-numerical data such as how a person thinks or feels about a specific topic through an in-person or phone interview. Qualitative interviews are usually audio recorded to ensure that the data is accurately collected. For example, in a job interview, a question such as: ‘How do you think your previous job experience has prepared you for this position?’ would represent a qualitative question. Read the following post to learn more about qualitative and quantitative data.

When you are tasked with collecting qualitative data from participants for research purposes, talking directly with people in semi-structured interviews is an invaluable tool for amassing information. But how do you prepare for the interview? What do you ask? When do you know if you’ve collected the ‘right’ data? What are some fundamental ways you can prepare yourself to have a successful qualitative interviewing experience?

Listen: When leading a qualitative interview, you are the one asking the questions, but your more important role is as the listener to the responses. Be an active listener — make eye contact and nod. Say, ‘Tell me more’ or ‘What I hear you saying is…’ to reflect that you’re paying attention. Take notes to show you’re listening and serve as a backup if recording mechanisms fail.

Lead: Be mindful of the information you need to gather for your research. Prepare interview questions in advance and know your material. Be open to following up with participants’ responses to obtain more information. Steer the interview when needed. Stay focused on the research topic but give yourself permission to veer off script if a participant has more to contribute. Keep track of time so you are respectful of your participants’ time and so you are able to ask all of your interview questions.

Learn: Let participants tell their story, embrace their silence, don’t interrupt them, and respect their perspectives and opinions. Be empathic, interested, and courteous. Make no judgements or assumptions about how a person will respond to your questions. Let them answer in their own words.

Lean In: Ask clear, open-ended questions to elicit the most useful responses. Use ‘how’ questions because they allow for more than one-word answers. Be aware of your own biases and be sensitive and open to participants’ experiences. Inform participants how you will use their information and thank them for their time, honesty, and involvement in the interview. Thanking a participant may involve an incentive such as a gift card for their time.

Qualitative interviews can be interesting, informative and incredibly useful for collecting data. Being open, prepared, and an empathic and attentive listener are key components to successfully leading a qualitative interview. Read this blog post to learn more about the differences between qualitative and quantitative data.

If you have any specific follow-up questions to this blog post, or any other research and evaluation needs, please feel free to contact Dr. Annette Shtivelband (annette@researchevaluationconsulting.com).

Special thanks to Mindi Wisman for writing this blog post!

Additional Resources

Are you really listening? Tips for conducting qualitative interviews: http://www.qsrinternational.com/nvivo/nvivo-community/blog/are-you-really-listening-tips-for-conducting-qual

Conducting qualitative research: A practical guide for school counselors: https://www.schoolcounselor.org/asca/media/asca/Data Specialist/Farber.pdf

Strategies for qualitative interviews: https://sociology.fas.harvard.edu/files/sociology/files/interview_strategies.pdf