What can you do with an interviewee who doesn’t seem to want to share?

An interviewee is, by definition, a person who has already agreed to sit and do the interview.

Nevertheless, not all interviews are alike.

Sometimes it happens that an interviewee is reluctant to talk. This can happen for a wide range of reasons, of course. Some folks want to help, but are made uncomfortable by the process. That’s natural and understandable. In those cases, you might need to say, “Thank you very much for your time,” and drawn the interview to a speedy conclusion.

But in other cases, interviewees may be reluctant because they

  • believe you don’t really want to know what they think
  • do not understand what you want
  • think what they have to say is outside the bounds of socially acceptable discussion

To avoid this situation or to elicit information in this circumstance, I recommend that you:

  • Make sure that your interviewee understands that they have a significant degree of control over the content and direction of the interview.
  • Make your expectations and desires clear from the beginning. If you want people to tell stories, provide anecdotal information, or narrate their life history, let them know that, right up front, before you begin.
  • Start with easy questions – perhaps these might concern biographical detail, like where a person lives and how to spell their name
  • Do not interrupt
  • Try to keep eye contact
  • When you change topics, explain why you are doing so
  • Avoid cutting people off or asking irrelevant questions
  • Ask open questions – questions that demand evaluation and interpretation as part of the response.

The last item is, in my estimation, the most important.

You know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: Closed questions demand information. They don’t require elaboration. Open questions, by contrast, leave room for the interviewee to think and talk.

Imagine that you are interviewing a person about a specific event, like a disaster.

Closed questions might include:

  • Did you see anything?
  • What time did this happen?
  • Where were you?
  • Were you hurt?
  • Did you see who did it?

Replies to those questions could, quite possibly, be monosyllabic. An interviewee could say: “Yes.” “No.” “11:30am.” And so on.

Open questions might include:

  • What do you remember about the event?
  • Why do you think it happened?
  • How do you feel about what you saw?
  • Why do you think this was important?
  • Can you help me understand….?

It’s my opinion that if you allow an interviewee to think and talk out loud with you, you will get the information – the data — that you want. It might take time. But with patience it will happen.

After that, I say:

  • Ask good follow up questions
  • Ask why
  • Ask for clarification