What are transformative interviews?

Simply put, a transformative interview is a conversation that helps to transform people’s mental models and, through this process, facilitate action. Let’s break that down a bit.

 A mental model is a picture in our minds about how the world works. These pictures are often incomplete and inaccurate. When we take the time to reflect on these mental models, we can expand our view, add more detail, and make modifications. A transformative conversation gives people the space to do just that.

However, this reflection is not solely for the sake of better thinking; it is a process that helps us find solutions to problems we may be struggling with. 

Transformative interviews are interviews in which the questions we ask help research participants reflect on their situations, change their mental models, and focus on solutions to their problems.

“How is that research?” you may ask. Transformative interviews may not be suitable for all types of research. But often, researchers are concerned with understanding people’s experiences and the challenges they face in hopes of generating knowledge that will contribute to a solution.

Most researchers I know care deeply about something and want to make the world better. However, the research institution (funding agencies, academic journals, publication expectations, etc.) is organized in such a way that we tend to emphasize practical contribution as a by-product of the research. After the study is completed – and preferably published – we communicate the findings to the people who can do something about it. Usually, that is a long time coming. In the meantime, we are sacrificing critical opportunities for intervention and making a difference right now, as we talk to people experiencing the issues we are studying.

Transformative Interviews remedies that problem by simultaneously supporting participants to find solutions to the issues they are facing while collecting data about their experiences. A bonus of this process is that, as we support participants to reflect deeply on their situations, the data we gather is also richer. As we give participants time to reflect on their situations and learn more about it, they share with us their insights in ways that would not be possible through traditional interviewing.

The doing of TI requires a new way of conceiving a research project and also new tools. As I mentioned in an earlier post, academic training often does not include developing the skills to support others through conversation. I will be posting tools and resources I find useful to help those committed to developing those skills.

In the meantime, consider your last interview project: in what ways have your conversation supported participants?