Are Transformative Interviews for Everyone?

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 20-25.

As I implement Transformative Interviews principles in my research, I have found that some interviews did not work as well as others. I have learned a few things in the process:

  1. Framing the conversation is critical. Research participants want to tell us what they think we want to hear. They do not know what to expect from the conversation. Clearly outlining the dual goal of supporting the participants while learning about their experience and setting expectations about how the conversation will evolve helps create a structure and make participants more comfortable. 
  2. Pre-interview preparation is vital. I have found that sending an email before the interview brief outlining the interview’s goal and identifying a few things for the participant to think about helps make the interview time more efficient. For instance, it helps to collect basic demographic data and invite the participant to come to the meeting with a goal or desire to guide the conversation. This way, the interview can be more in-depth and more meaningful.

Here an example of an email I have sent before interviewing.

Thank you for agreeing to participate in our study. The purpose of the conversation scheduled for xxx is twofold: One, we will explore the challenges you are facing regarding xxx, and two, you will together look for ways to help you cope with your current situation. 

To that end, you will work together to articulate a developmental statement, which is a behavioral, process-oriented statement that would help you deal with this situation better. This statement is a sentence that would typically start with “I would like to be better able to…”. This exercise should help you identify and articulate the challenges you are facing to xxx and develop skills or competencies to help you better deal with these challenges.

You don’t have to do anything until we talk. However, the closer you are to articulating your statement, the more beneficial the conversation, as we will focus more of our time working on a path forward. 

Coaches sometimes have a pre-session form or questionnaire to collect some information and make the interview most meaningful. Here some pre-interview questions that can be helpful to provide input to the interview (see Tony Stoltzfus’ Coaching Questions: A coach’s guide to powerful asking questions for more ideas):

  1. Please briefly tell me about yourself
  2. In regard to (topic of the study), what is a priority for you right now?
  3. In the short term, what objectives do you most want to work on or pay attention to?
  4. What major changes have taken place in your life in the last six months that have impacted your experience of (topic of the study)?
  5. The problems or challenges I most want to overcome right now are…
  6. What I most would like to discuss in our meeting is…

(I did not envision that this post would contribute to the 100-questions challenge, but here we are, six pre-interview questions to make the most of a transformative interview session).

However, not all participants will respond as well to transformative interviews, just like not everyone benefits from coaching. 

  1. The participant must be willing to engage in some type of self-reflection and introspection. A few participants, hearing that the interview is meant to support them, may expect to receive some answer or guidance to solve their problem. I had a participant that wanted very factual information and advice and was resistant to engage in self-reflection.
  2. The participant needs to feel accountable for part of their experience. Some participants see the interview as an opportunity to vent and tell the researcher how the system is wrong. These participants need to be stirred towards a solution-based conversation, which is not always easy. Preparing participants prior to the conversation and explaining and framing the conversation are critical steps for preparing participants and making the most of the interview.

To attract and prepare participants for a successful interview, the research design needs to maximize the fit between the research question and the needs of research participants. This is easier said than done. In inductive qualitative studies, the research question is not always clear from the start. Of course, we have a starting question, but the “real” research question may emerge only when we are well into the fieldwork. For a transformative design to be effective, it is helpful to narrow the question to a specific phenomenon or issue that is equally relevant for researchers and participants. 

For example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a study to understand how the pandemic affected international students and how they could cope better. The transformative interview approach worked well because the problem was very clear – how students coped with the lack of mobility – and helpful to participants. However, when we used the same approach to look at immigrants’ work experiences, we realized it was too broad and difficult to focus efficiently on a goal or desire that was informative. As a result, participants had too much to say about their challenges and barriers and would take all the allotted interview time before identifying a goal. We have since narrowed the focus of the study to make it more manageable (how immigrants are making sense of the job market virtually).

In summary, Transformative Interviews require more up-front work to frame and narrow the study, so the conversations are productive. This preparation may help identify participants that are better fit for the study and more likely to benefit from the process, as well as focus the conversations on topics that are likely to inform the research.

How can you better position your study?