Using coaching in qualitative research interviews

being interviewed about my research

being interviewed about my research, in front of Sydney Harbour

In my last post, I tried to illuminate some of the internal dialogue and thinking that goes on in the coach’s mind during a coaching conversation. On Twitter, in response to that post, Avril Nicholl reminded me that being deliberate about interaction, and explicit about role, is applicable to qualitative interviewing. So in this post I’ll explain how I used my coaching toolbox when I was conducting qualitative interviews for my PhD.

My PhD experience of the qualitative interview comes from both participant and researcher perspectives. I interviewed one group of participants for my study, as interviewer and researcher. But ethical issues resulted in another group, and me, being interviewed by an independent interviewer. So I was interviewer, designer of protocols and questions for someone else to interview some participants, and an interviewed participant in my research.

Interview is a widely used way of generating data, especially when the researcher is seeking to explore feelings, relationships, beliefs, identities, and insights about people in action in their social worlds. As I discussed here, the creation of meaning is a complex interaction dependent on meaning-maker and context. Narrative researchers often agree that participant stories are not fully formed, waiting to be drawn from the person. Rather, meanings are made on the spot; shaped by the questions asked, the interview structure, the interview environment and the interviewer themselves. Interviews do not just recall knowledge; they produce it, in the moment.

Anecdotally, I experienced this myself in being interviewed for my study by the independent interviewer, who I had briefed on interviewing me and other participants. I had written the questions and the protocols, so I was surprised by the experience of being interviewed for my own study. In thinking aloud, or being probed to think further or differently, my own thinking was not only illuminated, but deepened, extended and re-shaped, even though I knew what the questions and foci beforehand.

The interviews for my PhD sat somewhere between semi-structured and un-structured, designed to elicit storytelling from participants. I wanted to, as narrative research doyenne Catherine Riessman suggests, “follow participants down their diverse trails” (in ‘Analysis of personal narratives’, 2002). I wanted interviews to be less about my agenda (although of course my study had its foci) and more about surfacing participant stories in all their messiness and humanness.

Planned questions were sparing; there were only a few. These were based on the phenomena on which the study focused. Mostly, these anchor questions started with, “Tell me about …” There were also suggestions for probing questions. The interviews were designed to be broadly consistent for each participant (in question order and focus) but the structure of the interview was flexible enough to explore tangents which emerged from each participant’s responses.

When interviewing, I was explicit about my role as researcher and interviewer, especially because I was interviewing people from within my own professional context. I used my coaching toolbox to give me a structure and approach for research interviewing. I applied an interviewer listening pattern of ‘pause, paraphrase, ask question’ (borrowed from Costa & Garmston’s 2006 Cognitive Coaching). This interview structure encouraged participant storytelling, while allowing patterns and idiosyncracies to emerge.

I was aware of leaving space in conversation for pausing and thinking, rather than jumping in when there was silence (as I mentioned in my previous post, restraint and pausing are areas of personal mindfulness for me). My coaching training on eye movement (see visual representation above for more on how to recognise eye cues) allowed me to see what sort of thinking the interviewee was doing, which helped me to wait while that thinking happened; I knew if I jumped in with another question I would be interrupting the person’s internal dialogue or their recollection of an experience. Usually the silence in the interviews didn’t last long but instead was a jumping off point for the participant to speak further; it was a space in which the interviewee was thinking and after which their story would continue.

I found that, rather than asking questions, I was attempting to distil, clarify, or abstract the person’s thinking with a well-considered paraphrase. While the focusing questions were necessary to direct responses onto the research foci, a Cognitive Coaching approach allowed me to ‘get out of the way’ of participants, following them along their own stories as they directed and developed their own responses. After the interviews I had feedback from a number of participants who said that for them the interview was useful, a great conversation, and a luxurious space in which to reflect on their own professional selves and practices. The research interview was valued by participants as an opportunity which provided the space and structure for learning and reflection.

My Cognitive Coaching training also helped to bring to my awareness, during the interviews, to the importance of trust, rapport, body language mirroring, pausing and paraphrasing. Conscious of maintaining rapport, I did not take notes, but allowed a Dictaphone to capture the audio. I watched the conversation body language in a kind of meta out-of-body looking-in-from-outside experience, and often found myself mirroring the interviewee’s body language. I was mindful of how participants used their bodies and hands to express their ideas and their relationships to things. This allowed me to pick up on the nuances of their thinking. Were they sequencing points on their fingers or in the air in a linear pattern? Were they expanding themselves and their ideas out into abstraction or magnitude, or bringing them close to their chests, showing something was dear to them? Non-verbal cues helped me to paraphrase participants’ responses.

For me, coaching and being coached has influenced the way I have conversations in all sorts of arenas. As a parent, as a partner, as a friend, as a teacher and as an interviewer. As a PhD candidate and neophyte researcher, the coach’s toolbox was helpful in developing my approach to qualitative interviews. As interviewer and coach, my PhD interview transcripts and audio provided data for reflection on my practices.

While the role and purpose of a research interviewer is different to the role and purpose of a coach, the principles and skills are transferrable: belief in the capacity of the individual, active listening, paraphrasing, asking questions which mediate thinking, and keeping oneself (coach/interviewer) out of the conversation. Both kinds of conversation – coaching and research interviewing – should be primarily about the person doing the thinking, talking, sharing, storytelling. Although the coach or interviewer of course influences the words and thoughts generated, they should aim to be almost-invisible catalyst, mirror and conduit.