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You Don’t Say! How To Get Respondents to Open Up

January 8, 2011
One on One Interview

Sometimes respondents talk freely, so freely, all the interviewer has to do is get out of their way.  But not always.  Projective techniques such as free association, personification and storytelling are often invaluable tools to “loosen up” respondents.

But there are other conversational techniques that can similarly encourage respondents to give fuller, richer responses, even among those already disposed to.

Here are three of them and why they work:

1.  Don’t Look.   The best way to earn someone’s trust is to give them space while minimizing your presence. It would seem that maintaining eye contact would show interest and be engaging. But when delving into issues that require concentration or evoke negative feelings (e.g., anxiety, shame, guilt), the opposite is sometimes true.

In psychoanalysis, patients lie on the couch in order to free associate more freely.  In depth interviews, you may achieve a similar effect if you have respondents close their eyes (although for some, that’s intimidating). Another possibility is to occupy yourself with taking notes.  The important thing is to free the respondent from having to face you, and the tendency to tailor their responses based on your (nonverbal) reactions. And who doesn’t like to feel what they say is so important, you’re writing down their every word!

2.  Don’t Help. Don’t hurry to fill in the silence after posing a question.  Give respondents time to reflect on the question.  Sometimes the sheer passage of time is needed.  Sometimes it’s the question itself that gives pause. Either way, it’s better to let the question hang there awhile before probing further. If there is resistance to answering the question, cycling back with the same question in a different form often gets results.  Even though you are asking the same question, it may be perceived as different or easier to answer when asked in a different way.

3.  Don’t Give Up. It’s the moderator’s job to get beyond platitudes and safe answers. Not surprisingly, respondents often prefer to stay in their “comfort zone,” giving answers that make them look good, don’t make them think too much or work too hard, don’t make them feel certain emotions, or for any number of reasons.  But, sometimes, those with the greatest resistance have the most to say once they get started.  Although it may feel wrong to press for more (and there is of course a limit), oftentimes respondents seem to feel a sense of accomplishment, discovery, and satisfaction when they go beyond their usual pat answers.  Comments such as “I didn’t know I knew that!” or “I never thought about it that way,” are not uncommon.

Getting respondents to open up is not always easy.  By downplaying the audience (the moderator), allowing conversational a “white space” in the interview, and persistently seeking the heart of the matter can lead to richer output and insight.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2011 4:38 pm

    >Good info from an interviewer perspective and to remember that when interview, as a perspective employee, not to run-on an the month. Answer the question succinctly then keep quiet and wait for the next question. Too often when we hear silence, we feel the need to make noise thru talking or stating um. Patience I believe is the key and most job seekers 2day, including myself need extra practice developing the habit.

  2. January 18, 2011 2:22 am

    >Interesting application I hadn't thought of. But it does fit the job interview situation as well. Thanks for your comment.

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