Nardon, L., Hari, A., Aarma, K. Reflective Interviewing: Increasing social impact through research, International Journal of Qualitative Methods


Scholars are increasingly calling for research that “makes a difference” through theoretical, practical, societal, and educational impacts. Recognizing that academic research lags behind practitioners’ issues and that most academic writing is inaccessible to those who need the knowledge, some scholars are calling for embedding social impact in the research process itself. We argue that participant reflection can increase social impact by changing the way individuals think, behave, and perform. Research interviews can be interventionist with the potential to facilitate participant reflection; however, the current literature on the topic is fragmented. We combine this fragmented literature with discussions of social impact and interview techniques to propose interview principles to facilitate participant reflection toward social impact. We hope to stimulate researchers across a broad range of disciplines to think more intentionally about the impactful role of a common qualitative methodological tool, interviews, to support research participants and engage in socially meaningful research.

Nardon, L., Hari, A. (2021) Sensemaking through metaphors: The role of imaginative metaphors in constructing new understandings, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, Vol 20 (1-10).


Drawing on in-depth interviews with exchange and international students during the COVID-19 pandemic, we elaborate on the role of Imaginative Metaphor Elicitation (IME) to generate knowledge about participants’ experiences while helping them make sense of and cope with a difficult situation. Imaginative metaphors allow participants to explore feelings, assumptions, and behaviors in non-threatening ways and facilitate introspection and self-awareness. We propose that imaginative metaphors help participants make their experience tangible and accessible, identify problematic assumptions, behaviors, as well as resources available to them. Some reported gaining a renewed sense of empowerment. Simultaneously, IME provides an opportunity to collect rich data while co-creating solutions for and with participants. We contribute to calls for embedding social impact in the research design by highlighting the value of IME in gaining deeper access to participants’ experiences while supporting them in taking an active role in their situations.

Moving through Space

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 73-92.

I have just completed a course on “Gaining insight through movement,” a foundational module on Emergent Knowledge. Emergent Knowledge is a process that supports participants in thinking outside of the box and accessing their own knowledge. By asking repetitive questions and encouraging participants to explore the space around them, the process allows for iteration and the connection of disparate pieces of knowledge. One of my colleagues described it beautifully as taking a question for a walk. This questioning system is somewhat unusual, perhaps a little odd, but, in my experience, it allows for some interesting insights.

I am using this technique for my own self-reflection and find it very helpful. I have not yet tried to incorporate these questions in an interview setting because I believe to be beneficial to be face-to-face to gather information through this process, as the artifacts used can be seen and collected at the end of the activity. In pandemic times, we are restricted to online interviewing, and that is somewhat limiting as participants go off-camera while exploring their space. 

In a coaching setting, online works well, but the coach does not always see the client and does not always know the content of the coachee’s exploration. For this reason, to use in an interview session, a few modifications would be necessary, which I will discuss later. First, I will describe the process as designed for coaching.

The first element of this approach is to generate psychoactivity in the space. This initial process is focused on ensuring that the person and their goal or topic are in the best physical space to start the process of emerging knowledge. To that end, the practitioner will ask a few questions from the list below:

“And are you in the right space?”

“And is [goal] in the right space?”

“And are you at the right height?”

“Is [goal] at the right height?”

“And are you facing the right direction?”

“And is [goal] facing the right direction?

”And are you at the right angle?”

“And is [goal] at the right angle?” 

“And are you in the right position?”

“And is [goal] in the right position?”

“Are you the right amount of distance from [goal]?”

“And is the goal at the right distance from you?”

Once the participant and their goal are in the right space, this section is closed with:

“And, what do you know now?”

From there, the participant is invited to explore the space around them. By asking participants what they know from different perspectives, different aspects of knowledge emerge. We promote this process by repeating the questions about six times:

“And is there another space that you could go to from that space there?”

“And what do you know from that space there?”

This process is similar to the Power of Six, discussed previously, except that it adds the spacial dimension. This process can be finalized with an action plan, in which action-related questions follow. For instance, you may ask:

Is there a space that knows about what action you want to take?

[client moves to the space]

What’s the first action that you know that you could do from this space?

How will you do that?

When will you do that?

Is there anything else you would like to do?

I find this technique very powerful to think through things when I am feeling stuck. However, to use this in an interview setting, I believe some modifications may be needed. One option is to use this method before the formal part of the interview to allow participants to think more deeply about the topic without researcher intervention. This way, the knowledge shared at the end of the process is more meaningful to participants and researchers. Another alternative is to capture the data generated throughout the process. However, some contextualizing conversation needs to happen before engaging in this process so the researcher can make sense of the participants’ process. 

I am curious to see how this works and am looking for opportunities to try it in a research context. I am also started to read Insights in Spacehoping to get more ideas. In the meantime,

Is there a space that knows about the next steps for you?

Probing Questions

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 65-72.

As anybody who ever conducted an interview (or paid close attention to a conversation) knows, our questions or comments don’t always land the way we expect. We think we have the perfectly worded question and are surprised to find that the answer we got was not quite what we expected. In addition, sometimes participants may not have thought much about what we are asking, may not be sure about what we want to know and may give us superficial or short answers. Probing questions is an excellent way to elaborate on a response, get more information from research participants, and help participants further explore their experience and needs.

Probing questions can help get some background about a particular situation (Give me some background, how did you arrive to this situation?), explore desires or intentions (Where do you see this going? What is the best possible outcome?), explore feelings (how do you feel about this?), get more concrete information (can you give me an example of that), or understand why a piece of information is important (what makes this significant to you?). 

In the book Coaching Questions (p.38), Stoltzfus suggests several probing questions that can be used often in coaching situations. The questions below are also helpful probing questions in an interview context:

  1. What feelings do you have about this?
  2. What are the other players in this situation? How are they involved?
  3. What do you want? What is your objective?
  4. Give me a concrete example of that.
  5. What did you mean when you said X.
  6. What was most significant to you about this situation?
  7. Give me some background: what led to this situation?
  8. What excites you about this?

In a way, the magic is in the probing questions, as these are the questions that keep the conversation and direct the conversation towards deeper reflexivity and insight. It reminds me of my teachers’ comment that in a clean languageconversation, the question “And is there anything else about that?” is the most used and perhaps the most insightful.

What excites you about this?

Transformative Interviews and Participatory Action Research

When we talk about Transformative Interviews’ interventionist intentions, people quickly think of Action Research as a comparative method. For this reason, I thought it would be useful to discuss the ways in which Action Research and Transformative Interviews are similar and different.

There are many different types of Action Research, just like there are many kinds of Transformative Interviews (discussed in another post). In this post, I focus on Participatory Action Research, mainly based on the work of Kemmis, McTaggart, and Nixon on Critical Participatory Action Research.

Action Research, in general, rejects the notion that the researcher enters the field with the sole purpose of record and represent what is happening. Instead, action researchers aim to make improvements in practice through the research. As a result, Action Research challenges the traditional relationship between research-researched and theory and practice. In this sense, Transformative Interviews and Action Research share a goal of making an impact throughout the research process, as opposed to the traditional approach of conceiving impact as translation and communication of knowledge acquired through research. Both approaches also assume that practitioners are knowledgeable and capable of improving their lives (or practices) and that self-reflection is a crucial step towards better practices.

However, the motivation and application of these methods vary significantly. Participatory Action Research focuses on collectives: organizations or communities. Practitioners in these communities identify issues they want to work on (e.g., student outcomes, worker productivity, quality of care). They collectively engage in a change process that involves a recursive process of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting. Research tools provide the evidence for analysis and reflection and input for new cycles of planning. As such, Participatory Action Research is a “practice-changing practice.” A Participatory Action Research project follows the cycle of the practices (yearly, monthly, daily) and is driven by practitioners embedded in the context. As such, the knowledge generated is highly contextualized to the community or organization and the practices it implements. 

On the other hand, Transformative Interviews are focused on individuals and guided by the recognition of a problem facing a particular population (problem-driven research). Informed by interactions with both the research and practice communities, the researcher focuses on a population facing a challenge or problem (e.g., international students during the COVID-19 pandemic). The researcher then engages with these individuals through a research interview to better understand the challenges and solutions to the population AND support individual participants in finding solutions to cope or deal with their challenges. As such, it departs from Action Research in the sense that change is not a requirement. An outcome of the intervention may be that the participant reflects on and reframes their experience in ways that make them feel more at ease. It also does not (necessarily) engage in the process of assessment of modification of practices. Instead, Transformative Interviews focus on facilitating a sensemaking process that further elucidate (to both participants and researchers) the nature of the challenge and open the possibility of new solutions to be envisioned. 

For example, we explored international students’ experiences living in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic using Transformative Interviews. We supported each student to find better ways to cope with the pandemic, such as coming to peace with location decisions and finding meaning in virtual connections. At the same time, we identified general patterns such as heightened reliance on support from transnational families and anxieties about their future careers and mobilities. These patterns resulted in practical, policy, and theoretical implications. As such, Transformative Interviews have a dual goal of generating knowledge about a problem within a context and supporting individuals dealing with that problem. 

What do we mean by “Coaching inspired interviewing”?

My desire to engage with and further develop transformative interviewing tools grew hand in hand with my training as a coach, first at Integral Coaching Canada and then the Clean Coaching Centre in the UK. Both coaching and transformative interviews share the goal of supporting participants to deal with problems or challenges. Thus, it makes sense that some tools can be borrowed and incorporated into the interviewer toolbox.

However, as I started working with research participants using this method, I noticed that the term coaching is not always well understood, creating ambiguity regarding what to expect of the interview process. This post explains what coaching is and how it has informed our perspective of transformative interviews.

What is coaching?

Bachkirova, Cox, and Clutterbuck (2018, p.xxix) define coaching as “a human development process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the client and potentially other stakeholders.” Coaching is a popular method to support individuals in advancing professionally, developing skills, increasing performance, developing leadership skills, engaging in a career change, adjusting to cross-cultural situations, and achieving personal goals.

Sometimes it is easier to understand what something is but explaining what it is not. Coaching is not therapy, training, consulting, or mentoring.

Coaching is not therapy. While coaching has borrowed some tools from clinical psychology and therapy, coaching is not therapy. Coaching deals with healthy and functional individuals looking to improve performance in an area of their lives. As such, coaching is focused forward, identifying solutions and a path towards a desired future. Unlike therapy, coaching does not look at the past, does not address clinical issues like depression or anxiety, and does not focus on understanding the source of problems.

Coaching is not training. Training is about teaching participants particular skills and providing information that will help individuals perform those skills. The training agenda is designed by a particular organization or trainer based on what is believed to be necessary to achieve specific goals. In coaching, the agenda and the breadth and depth of exploration are set by the participant. The coach is not (necessarily) an expert on the topic, but rather an expert in the process of guiding the client towards identifying and developing the skills they need to succeed in many areas of life.

Coaching is not consulting. Consultants provide advice based on their expertise to help clients achieve their goals. Coaches, on the other hand, support clients in the process of setting and achieving goals. The need for expert information may emerge in the process, and the client may be supported in finding expert knowledge elsewhere. 

Coaching is not mentoring. A mentor is someone with experience or expertise in a particular area. The mentor shares their knowledge, skills, and experience in support of protégés growth and development. Coaches do not (necessarily) have the knowledge and experience the client requires but can support the client to identify and achieve goals, including recognizing the need for particular types of mentorship.

Coaching techniques are developed based on some basic assumptions (Grant & Greene, 2001):

  1. People can solve their problems.
  2. People are experts in their lives, and we accept their definition of their situations.
  3. Focus on solutions, not problems.
  4. A problem is something one has, not something one is.
  5. Acknowledge and celebrate success.

Coaching tools in transformative interviews

Traditional research interviews focus on collecting or “extracting” knowledge from individuals with a particular experience to generate knowledge based on integrating, comparing, and analyzing multiple individuals’ experiences. In a traditional interview, the interview tries to understand the problems facing participants, the solutions they have tried, and the outcomes they have experienced. Most interview researchers attempt to avoid introducing biases in the interview process and focus on gathering knowledge without offering anything in return.

Transformative interviewing rejects the notion that interviews are neutral activities in which knowledge is transferred from participants to researchers. Instead, it assumes that the interviewer influences the participants’ sensemaking process and aims to intervene with intention. These interventions create self-reflection opportunities in which new understandings are made possible. In our transformative interviews, you should expect the following:

  1. Questions around your goals for the conversation itself – how can this conversation be helpful to you?
  2. Questions exploring what is wanted and how it can be achieved.
  3. Questions exploring successful experiences.
  4. Questions exploring assumptions guiding your behavior in the present and the future.
  5. Questions engaging symbolic meaning – construction of metaphors to guide exploration.

How do I benefit from a transformative interview?

Based on our experience so far, we found that individuals who have a clear idea of something they would like to explore during the interviews (e.g., making peace with the decision to immigrate; exploring a new career path; communicate more confidently in interviews) benefit more from the process than those that are focused on the barriers they are facing (e.g., Canada is not giving me opportunities; I have done everything and did not get any job). 

We also found that individuals who are more willing to engage in introspection and explore things they may not have thought about before, sometimes even feeling emotional in the process, get more out of the process than those who want to preserve a coherent story throughout the conversation.

If you decide to participate in a study using transformative interviews, take some time to think about a process-oriented statement that would help you deal with your career 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 and develop skills or competencies to help you better deal with these challenges. Then come ready to explore this topic with an open mind. I hope to see you soon.

Listen more, talk less, and ask Incisive Questions

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 60-64.

I just finished reading Time to Think, by Nancy Kline. The book was recommended to me by my Clean Language teacher, Angela Dunbar, as it makes a good argument for the importance of allowing people to think for themselves.

We, academics, love to think. But we are not very good at listening and letting others think. When we interact with students, we want them to think for themselves, but more often than not want to show them our great thinking, rather than giving them a chance to do some thinking themselves.

Nancy Kline argues for creating Thinking Environments in schools, organizations, and families, so we can all think better. A Thinking Environment has the following components (p. 35):

  1. Attention – listening with respect and interest
  2. Incisive Questions – questions that remove limiting assumptions
  3. Equality – treating each other as thinking peers
  4. Appreciation – keeping a ration of five appreciations for each criticism
  5. Ease – freedom from rush and urgency
  6. Encouragement – moving beyond competition
  7. Feelings – allowing emotions to be expressed
  8. Information – providing a full and accurate picture of reality
  9. Place – physical spaces that say people matter
  10. Diversity – recognizing the value of the difference between people

Incisive Questions

While I believe all of them are important, I particularly liked the notion of Incisive Questions. Incisive questions are questions that remove assumptions that limit ideas. By replacing limiting assumptions with a freeing assumption, incisive questions invite fresh new thinking.

Kline proposes the following process for using effective incisive questions (p. 166).

Following the identification of a goal (we have discussed the process of identifying a goal here), ask:

“What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal?”

The participant may identify multiple assumptions. If that is the case, ask:

“Of these assumptions, which do you think is limiting you the most?”

Kline suggests that assumptions come in three types:

  1. Facts – I am not the boss; he is.
  2. A possible fact – the boss will think I am stupid.
  3. A bedrock assumption about the self (I am stupid; I am not worthy; I have no power) or about life (it is not all right to get it wrong; certainty is achievable; I have to have all the answers).

Of those, the bedrock assumption is the most dangerous and limiting. Incisive Questions are designed for dismounting bedrock assumptions. Thus, if faced with a fact or possible fact, we need to dig deeper until a bedrock assumption is uncovered. A good question here is:

“That is possible/true. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?”

Once we have a goal and a bedrock assumption, we are almost ready to craft an incisive question. The structure of the incisive question is:

If you knew + freeing assumption + goal

A freeing assumption is the positive opposite of the bedrock assumption. Again, in line with the idea that participants’ words are best, it is best to ask participants what that is.  Then we are ready to construct our incisive question.

For example:

Q: What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal.

A: The boss will think I am stupid.

Q: That is possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?

A: I am assuming that I am stupid.

Q: What would the positive opposite of stupid be in this context for you?

A: Intriguing

Incisive Question: If you knew that you are intriguing, how would you handle this [goal]?

Then, repeat. Ask the incisive question multiple times until no new answer emerges. As discussed in a previous post, when we repeat a question multiple times, we give participants a chance to explore their thinking and find answers beyond the obvious. She suggests writing the question down and giving it to the participant to continue exploring the question beyond the session.

Nancy Kline goes on to caution about the tense used in crafting incisive questions. The present tense should be used to state a new positive assumption (you are intriguing) and the hypothetical tense to propose a new way of thinking. If you knew that you are…, how would you…

Incisive questions can be a powerful tool to add to the transformative interview toolbox as it gives participants a chance to think about their problems in a new positive light. It also offers researchers insight into limiting assumptions around a particular topic. I will definitely try it.

What may you be assuming that is stopping you from using transformative interviews?

Switching Questions

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 55-60.

Marilee Adams, in her book “Change your questions, change your life: 12 powerful tools for leadership, coaching, and life,” advocates for the power of questions to facilitate change. Her most basic argument is that questions can change thinking; it is only through better questions that we can find better answers. She quotes Albert Einstein (p. 27):

We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

She argues that there is a choice we make moment by moment a judger and a leaners mindset. A judger mindset is focused on blame, automatic reactions, and win-lose relating. On the other hand, a learner mindset is a mindset of solution-focused, thoughtful choices, and win-win relating.

She illustrates this choice in a choice map. Of most interest to researchers concerned with supporting participants, good questions can help move people from a judging mindset into a learning mindset. These switching questions may allow participants to consider solutions to their problems and support a learning and thoughtful mindset.

I found the following switching questions particularly helpful:

  1. What assumptions are you making?
  2. How else can you think about this?
  3. What are your choices?
  4. What actions make the most sense?
  5. What can you learn?
  6. What can you do to make the best of this time?

I also found the idea of switching from a judging to a learning mindset to be a good reminder for interviewers. As we listen to participants’ experiences, it is worthwhile remembering to adopt a mindset of learning and curiosity as opposed to judgement. Rather than quickly reacting with solutions or judgements about participants’ challenges, adopting a learning attitude may help us  learn from them and support them in making sense of their experiences in new ways.

Consider your last interview: were you in a learner or judger mindset?

The power of repeating participants’ words

Clean language involves a lot of repetition of clients’ words. Each question is preceded by repeating what the client has said before twice, in a specific structure. Something like this:

  • And…(participant’s words) 
  • And when… (focus in on specific part of what participant has said),
  • Ask a Clean Language question.

When I was introduced to this idea, it felt weird and artificial. However, the more I practice repeating a participants’ words, the more I realize its power. 

  • First, it requires focused attention and exquisite listening from the interviewer. We must listen carefully to what the participant is saying. 
  • Second, it takes away biases. We don’t interpret or paraphrase. We repeat back the way they said it. We don’t pollute the conversation with our personal baggage.
  • Third, as a participant, it feels great to hear back our own words. We feel understood and heard (even if the coach or interviewer has no idea what we mean).
  • Fourth, participants used the words they used for a reason. Their words have meaning to them, they resonate with their history, culture, experiences, and bring with them a number of associations. Our words, on the other hand, are our words and resonate with us. And while they may be beautiful and clever, they are not as powerful as the participants’ own words.
  • Fifth, it gives us time. The interviewer has time to process the information received and think of the next question.  The participant has time to consider their own thoughts and follow the next question.
  • Sixth, it keeps us in the present. By listening to every word with exquisite attention, we are fully grounded in the present, not thinking about what comes after, theorizing, of forming opinions. That will come later as we process the interview. During the conversation, we are fully present with the participant’s experience.

It is obviously not possible to repeat every word the participant said. In our repetitions, we chose words we decide are most important. That means the interviewer is still directing the conversation somewhat and potentially introducing biases. A key question when repeating a participants’ words is which words to focus on and repeat. In line with the idea that we want to move a participant towards achievable goals and away from the problem, we should emphasize words that reflect what the client wants, not what they do not want. As described in earlier posts, we want to guide participants towards solutions. For this reason, it is always best to focus on outcomes, not problems.

For example, if the participant says, “I am so tired of applying for jobs and not getting anywhere, I really want to find a job that makes me happy.” Instead of focusing on what they do not want (apply for jobs and not getting anywhere), it is best to emphasize what they want (a job that makes me happy). A follow-up may go like this “And you want a job that makes you happy. And what kind of job is a job that makes you happy?”

We may also choose to emphasize words that help guide the interview. In an approach using symbolism, like clean language, that may mean focusing on symbols. In a more traditional interview, it may be the concepts of interest in the study.

Getting participants to focus on a goal or outcome

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 42-54.

The population I work with faces many undisputable challenges and barriers. As a researcher, problems and difficulties are alluring as it gives me material to write about and propose solutions. The issue with problem-talk, though, is that they are unhelpful. The participant understands their problems very well. They are immersed in their challenges and often stuck. By dwelling on their problems, we are not helping them to find better solutions. On the other hand, by focusing on the solution, they can find greater motivation and resources to make the changes they need.

Despite my coaching and research training and my desire to do solution-focused interviewing, I find that it is not easy to shift away from the problem talk into a desire or goal. That is why I am excited about a tool I have recently learned a tool at my clean language course. The P-R-O, problem-remedy-outcome, is a very simple tool to help differentiate from a problem, or the trickier remedy, which is a problem disguised as a solution, and the desired outcome. It also proposes questions to help move from a problem to an outcome. The P-R-O is well explained by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley here.


A problem is something the participant does not like. For example, “I can’t get a job in my field.” When presented with a problem, a question to move towards an outcome is:

  • And when [problem] what would you like to have happen? For example, “And when you can’t get a job in your field, what would you like to have happen?”


A remedy is a means of eliminating something undesirable and describe how the participant expects to solve the problem. For example, “I want to stop wasting my time with menial work.”

When presented with a remedy, a good question is:

  • And when [remedy], then what happens? For example, “And when you stop wasting your time with menial work, then what happens?”


The desired outcome describes what the participant wants. They are not a solution to a problem. An outcome is something that has not yet happened, contains a desire or need, and does not contain any reference to the problem. For example, “I would like to work on something I love.” 

Once an outcome is identified, you can proceed with a line of questioning to develop the outcome. In the clean languagetradition, that involves exploring the outcome symbolically to create an embodied understanding. In more traditional approaches, it may include transforming the goal into a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Specific) goal.

Developing S.M.A.R. T goals

In his book “Coaching Questions: A coach’s guide to powerful asking questions,” Tony Stoltzfus proposed some helpful questions to lead participants towards more concrete goals or outcomes (p. 37). They are listed below.

Specific: the goal is clear

  • What exactly do you want to accomplish?
  • What will it look like when you reach your objectives?

Measurable: there is a way to establish progress

  • How can you quantify this goal, so we will know when you have reached it?
  • How could you state this objective, so your progress towards it is measurable?

Attainable: it is dependent only on the participant and can be achieved

  • Is this goal within your capability?
  • Are there any barriers or circumstances that preclude reaching this goal?
  • Does this goal depend on anyone else’s choices? How can we reword it, so it depends only on you?

Relevant: this goal is a priority

  • Why is this goal important to you?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to you to reach this goal?

Time-specific: there is a clear deadline

  • By when will you reach this goal?
  • When will you start?

And what would you like to have happen?