Top tips on interviewing people in groups

Talking to coffee farmers in Ethiopia - can't believe I get paid to do this [/caption] decades, I have been sitting down under trees, in people’s houses or in NGO offices and talking to groups of men and women about their lives. It’s one of the most fulfilling aspects of working in development. The conversations feed into my writing and analysis, but also prompt new ideas and takes on different development issues- a good group discussion sends your thoughts racing off in numerous different directions. I greatly prefer them to the kind of one-to-one interview you sometimes need to conduct for a report or article, but which the interviewee can often experience as an intimidating interrogation by an unknown whitey. With groups, the balance of power is less skewed, especially when discussions get going. Maybe as you spend longer in a place and get to know people, the one-to-ones become more useful – my colleague Martin Walsh sees ‘group interviews as a kind of collective brainstorm and first cut at issues; individual interviews to tease out details and differences of opinion.’ Sadly, I don’t normally stay long enough to get to that stage. Here are a few tips on getting the most out of them. The Basics: Know how long you’ve got for the meeting. Introduce yourself and why you’re here. Sit in a circle, and begin by going round and collecting names. If people are literate, ask them to write down their names, ages etc themselves. Then you can quickly refer back to the list and put names to comments as you take notes. Be prepared: Have a list of questions on a separate sheet of paper to refer to while waiting for translations etc. There’s nothing worse than drying up (e.g. if you’re jetlagged or ill) or forgetting to ask about something and remembering just as you leave the meeting. But you’re not filling in a questionnaire – if it goes well, you should abandon the list and follow conversational threads, use your instinct, be a bit random. Ethics and Courtesy: explain at the beginning what you intend to do with the material; end by asking people if they have any questions for you (their questions are often really interesting). Be prepared to talk about yourself (age, kids etc) and the real politics or other issues in your country. If people ask your advice, give it your best shot, however inadequate you feel (but explain if you are not an expert on the topic). They can always ignore it if it isn’t useful. Working through translators: This can be frustrating as hell, especially if the translator is struggling and/or has their own agenda – the five minute animated response that is then translated as ‘they don’t think so’ drives me crazy. Keep your questions singular, simple and avoid complex plays on words. Explain to the translator how you would like to work with them, (eg translating short or long) but in the end, you have no choice but to accept a level of uncertainty over what people really said. Remember, you’re privileged to be there at all and have people give up their time to talk to you. Handling intermediaries: Often, there will be people in the group such as health promoters, or technical assistance people, who sometimes feel they should speak on behalf of the group. Even though they are often very knowledgeable, they do not represent the group as a whole, so you need to listen for a bit then use questions and body language to politely move on to the other members of the group. Men v Women: A classic challenge, especially if you’re a male interviewer, is to avoid men doing all the talking in mixed groups (all-women ones are usually much easier). You need to prompt the translator, and when a woman starts talking, encourage her, but you can’t be too blatant. If you just blurt out ‘I want to hear from the women’, it can cause offense or bafflement. Have fun: If you can, get people talking, laughing and disagreeing. As an ice breaker, you can try saying hello in the local language in a suitably awful accent. Asking ‘who works harder, men or women?’ usually provokes a good argument. Banter a bit. Enjoy yourself. Keep a foot in each camp: It’s easy to obsess on details (e.g. the prices of different kinds of food) that subsequently prove of little use. The hardest thing is to remember your eventual readership and what will be meaningful to them, at the same time as genuinely trying to enter into the lives of the people in the room. Remember to ask the big questions: What future do you want for your kids? What’s the biggest change in your life since they built the road? What’s so good about mobile phones? They’re often the hardest to ask, and the most revealing. Be on the ball: you are likely to only have one chance to speak to these people. If there are long answers that must await a translation, skip back over your notes, and look for the gaps – what have you missed? What needs a follow up question? Concentration has to be total – you can always sleep in the car afterwards. OK, that’s a few of my tips, what others have people got?]]>

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7 Responses to “Top tips on interviewing people in groups”
  1. Great post Duncan. There’s also the question of how best to end the group discussion. On a recent trip to Cambodia to see some adaptation projects in progress, I asked participants to show me their neighborhood – the rice fields, health center, schools, etc. I learned so much on these short walks (or maybe not so short!) and I think it demonstrates more interest in how their lives actually work than by verbal interviews alone.
    Duncan: great tip, Anthony – at the end of the conversation people know much more about you and whether they like/can trust you. Must try and do this more in future.

  2. Kate Norgrove

    I agree that asking the group if they have any questions for you is one really good way of breaking the ice; I used to do this at the end of the conversation but now I’m starting to think it is best done at the start, to open the atmosphere and make it clear that what you’re looking for is a conversation not a one way q and a.

  3. John Magrath

    Great post – it should be in every manual of how to do research. Getting basics right is v important. I think 1 thing is to explain at the start you won’t be able to quote everything everyone says and why – people understand -and if you’ve a camera, explain you won’t (probably) be able to take individual photos of everyone – but do take a few group shots, and try to make sure the photos get sent back to the community later. Keep track of who’s speaking by jotting down what they’re wearing – “woman in yellow T-shirt” etc. then go back for their names after, and probably photos of those individuals. And yes, have fun, provoke a debate – when someone says something particularly good you think sums things up, get a show of hands on who agrees/disagrees, why etc. Anthony is spot-on too – ask to look around, and also that way you meet people en route who weren’t able to attend the meeting.

  4. Thanks for this post and your helpful suggestions. Group interviews or “focused group discussions” as people here in the Philippines call them, are a great way to unearth some extremely rich information – and I agree with you that they’re very enjoyable to facilitate, to boot.
    One thing I’ve found helpful to get people comfortable with speaking and sharing in the group setting is to ask an easy/non-threatening question for each participant to respond to when they introduce themselves. For example, “Please tell us your name, and one thing you like about X project/ issue/etc.” This gives people a structured opportunity to speak early on in the discussion, and helps them feel more accustomed to sharing. The more time that passes without them actively participating or contributing, the harder it will be for them to break out of the pattern of sitting quietly.
    When participants introduce themselves, I quickly jot down their names in a “map” configuration according to where they’re sitting. (And if possible, one can add descriptive information, as John suggested above: “woman in yellow t-shirt.”) During the discussion, I reference this “cheat sheet” so that I can use participants’ names, which helps build rapport. Also, if someone is dominating the conversation, I can turn to a quiet participant and say, “Marta, would you like to share some of your thoughts on this?” (Of course, it’s perfectly all right if Marta says, “No, thanks.”)
    I also find it helpful to remember that silence is okay. Yes, we’ve got a lot of questions to work through, and our social tendency (especially for those of us from a Western background) is to fill any silence with words. Yet if we can be okay with some silence and let people sit with the questions a few beats longer than we might normally feel comfortable, we will often hear some really rich responses.

  5. Karin

    Fantastic post — sitting under trees and talking to people about their lives is the best part of my job too.
    The very basic ‘sit in a circle’ advice is important, especially if things have been set up differently (e.g. by local officials with strong notion of formality/authority). I’ll often arrive in a village and find a head table set up with chairs for my team and the officials, with community members sitting on mats on the ground – men together up front, women in the back. I usually walk straight to the back and sit down with the women to start chatting (making goofy faces at little kids on their mothers’ laps can be a good ice breaker too, as is showing a picture of my kid). Eventually everyone gets the picture and moves to sit on the ground in a circle. Or I’ll decide to be more direct and just announce that we’re going to do things a little differently today. That tends to get people’s attention. And secretly I really enjoy making the bigwigs sit on the ground.
    Working through a translator is always super frustrating, so true. You really have to be on the ball. I’ve had translators embellish answers with what they anticipate the group is trying to say, or ought to be saying. This tends to happen later on, after the first few meetings on the same topic in different villages. It can help to sit down with your translator ahead of time and learn some of the basic vocabulary that will feature heavily in your discussion, so you can listen for the words in the responses. You can also try them out yourself – hilarity usually ensues.
    Asking people to show you around is vital (especially if you are deviating from the pre-arranged ‘site visit’). It never ceases to amaze me that I am getting to see a slice of village life that few foreigners ever do.

  6. Mike Lewis

    One thorny issue is about reciprocation in an inevitably extractive process: I often feel in the uncomfortable position of harvesting testimony, without having a sufficiently strong proposition for the positive benefits of the work on the individuals or communities involved (particularly when the interviews are used in distant advocacy rather than local programming).
    One partial answer, I suppose, is proper feedback – beyond sending back photos and copies of final reports, I’ve seen some great examples where researchers have fed back to communities about the outcomes of their work through community radio broadcasts, public meetings, capacity-building workshops…Perhaps the diffusion of SMS and even Facebook will soon allow us to build longer-term communities of ‘focus groupers’, even in rural settings and where visits are fleeting – seeing the results of the work further down the line and feeding back themselves. Ushahidi for action research?
    The corollary, presumably, is getting better at involving interviewees as collaborators further down the line – especially in writing and advocacy. Always hard with our structures and tight timescales. Over to the participatory action research crew, I guess…