Use open-ended questions. YES, even in a detention center. YES, even when you’re in a hurry.
1. Be aware of personal space. Respect your narrator’s personal space. Make yourself comfortable, too. If you need to pull back from someone who is “in your face,” do so. Be aware that people have different expectations about what is too close and what is far away, what is too loud, and what is too soft. Pay attention to what your narrator seems to need.
2. Start out with an area that seems relatively unthreatening and unintrusive. Obviously, what’s no big deal to one person may seem very intrusive to another, so pay attention to cues, back off when you need to. You might try openings such as… Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? If the person takes off from there, great. If not, you can get a little more specific.
Perhaps you could tell me about where you grew up…
Would you tell us how you met your son’s father?
How did you come to move from your cantón to the city?
3. Be quiet. Listen.
4. Use your facial gestures, eye contact, posture (lean slightly forward), and other body language and movements, to show the person that you are engaged with her or his story and eager to hear more. Express interest and empathy in quiet ways…
Tilt your head
Open your eyes
Furrow your eyebrows (not in worry, but in interest)
5. Pay close attention.
Make notes, if this is helpful to you, about areas that the narrator or you may discuss further. “Tangents” are good! — but the narrator may want to finish one thought before getting to another, so you can help keep track of these threads.
6. Close your mouth.
7. Put your assumptions and agenda to the side. You don’t have to give them up or stop being who you are; you can pick up these parts of yourselves again on the way home from the interview
8. Understand that silence is good. Silence is part of the story. Silence is productive. Let it be.
9. When the narrator pauses, wait. If she or he seems to be “through” with what they are saying, and when you are sure you are not rushing the person, encourage her or him to continue with open-ended prompts.
Invite story-telling with open questions such as:
Would you like to say a little more…
I’d like to hear about that…
Please tell me.
Could you tell me about that….
Would you say more….
Could you describe…..
Would you describe…
What do you remember about that day….
Does anything stick in your mind from that day?
What was the weather like?
ENCOURAGE SENSORY DETAIL, rather than abstractions. So, not “did you feel that the people who raised you discriminated against you?” but “Where did you sleep?” “Where did your siblings sleep?” “Did you go to school?”
Do you remember what it smelled like there?
If you find yourself in an interview where a person is responding with “yes” or “no” or other short answers, this situation may be a sign that you need to change what you are doing. But it may not. Some people don’t talk a lot. Some people are going to be nervous or defensive. The more relaxed (while being respectful) you are, the more likely other people may be to open up — but if not, don’t worry. Your job is not to force people to become other than who they are.
10. Be direct when you ask about the hardest topics. Don’t hem and haw. If you can’t get the words out, you may come across as judgmental or frightened or fragile. You may undermine the narrator’s comfort in talking to you. Just get to it.
You said that you had to leave your marriage. Why was that?
I’d like to know about your daughter. Would you tell me about losing her.
11. Follow up with clarifying questions only when the person has come to her or his own stopping place or pause.
13. Be patient.
14. Do allow yourself to feel empathy and sorrow. Do not, however, let your emotions take center stage. You do not want to become another burden, someone who must be taken care of. If you feel tears well up, that is one thing. If you feel that you must sob, stifle yourself. Stay focused on your job. Release your own emotions as fully as you need to — later.
Do not let your emotional reactions (or curiosity) be bigger than those of the person sharing her story.
15. Understand that silence is often productive. Do practice silence and becoming comfortable with silence. It is okay to sit in silence. Don’t try to fill it up.
16. At the end of an interview, ask a person if there is anything else that they would like to add.
17. Always thank the person for her time.
18. Answer her questions directly and honestly.
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