Interviewing the path of their choosing
In which I see how far a metaphor can extend
At first, a fog surrounds us, cool and thick. All I can see through the filtered light is my companion's profile. Soon, they'll choose our direction, but first I have to reveal that I'm here.
"Hello, my name is Veronica. I'll be moderating our interview. Is now still a good time?"
They answer with only a hint of hesitation. "Yes, thank you, I'm glad to be here."
As I describe how the session will go, the light grows brighter and the fog begins to dissipate. It sinks to our ankles, revealing a pale blue sky extending in all directions. I ask my companion if they have any questions about what we're going to do, and they shake their head, "No, I'm ready."
Now that they’ve given the ok, I resist the urge to look down. I know that I'll only see my legs ending in the silvery fog. Instead, I take a step forward, trying not to hold my breath.
"In the questionnaire you filled out, I asked you to list podcasts that you listen to."
The ground meets my foot, and the tension eases in my shoulders. Although I still can't see our feet, my companion walks next to me.
"I'm going to list the podcasts you mentioned," I continue, "and then I'd like you to pick one to tell me about."
As I say the names aloud, I see recognition soften the skin around my companion's eyes. We are walking on a path through a wood, the blue sky peeking through the trees. Ahead, I can see the path forking, one way for each of the options I list.
The last name spoken aloud, I step to the side of the path. I sweep my hand forward, inviting my companion to take the lead. They pause for only a moment before choosing the rightmost path, walking slower than when we walked side by side. I follow behind, allowing a few paces of distance to grow between us.
They describe what they see just as I can see it over their shoulder. Every boulder and tree and moth is mentioned. Their gait gains confidence, and we ease into a rhythm. I take notes in my notebook as we walk, underlining the features that we passed a bit too quickly for me to take in fully. If they lapse into silence and stillness, I pause with them until, when they are ready, they pick up the narration and the walk.
I sweep my arms out to my sides and catch myself on tiptoe, narrowly avoiding tumbling into my companion's suddenly still form.
They look over their shoulder at me and sigh. "I'm sorry; I'm rambling," they say.
Easing back onto my heels, I take a breath myself. "Oh no, you're doing exactly what I was hoping for. Please continue." I smile reassuringly and wait.
They face forward again and resume their narration, and I indulge in a quick victory shimmy in the middle of the path. When someone becomes suddenly aware of how much they're talking, they're finally starting to find ease with sharing their landscape.
For an hour, we stroll through scenery. Sometimes we come to a clearing, or we exit the woods entirely, and perhaps explore a valley or a mountain or a lake.
Often, these scenes are just what I'd hoped we'd come upon. Before choosing to go on this walk with this person, I carefully thought through and then sought out the people who might have the experiences that I needed to understand. We come to these scenes not randomly, but because I found people who hinted they had been in these places before.
Sometimes, to see what I seek, I do need to guide us to a different path or revisit a scene we already passed through. Once we've found our rhythm, however, all I need to do is to say the magic words, "Earlier you told me" along with a summary of the scene, and we swiftly and smoothly arrive where we once were, ready to take a look from a different perspective or to forge a different path.
Long ago, I didn't find walks through landscapes of the mind quite this comfortable. Following training from others, I used my teleportation power a bit too haphazardly, speeding us from one scene to another, not allowing the participant to choose the path we'd take. While this method made it easier for me to believe that I would see each scene that mattered, it would leave my companions dizzy. Their narration would be jilted, and I would wonder whether I was really getting to see their landscape as they understood it.
I started to practice into my gentler approach with the study I describe above.
We had hoped to learn why some podcast listeners had donated to their public radio station, and others hadn’t. I suspected that asking someone directly would lead to polite and vague answers that reflected the fundraising drives they’d likely heard at some point in their lives. “I wanted to support the public radio I love” or “It seemed like the right thing to do” or “I’ve been meaning to but haven’t gotten around to it,” they might say. But these answers wouldn’t help us build a donation platform specific to public radio podcasts—instead we needed a set of specific needs and motivations that our product could meet and encourage.
So I created an interview plan that eased into the topic. First I gave the participants the space to talk about a podcast of their choosing, and when and where and how it fit in their life. For many of the participants, donation came up on its own, just like I had hoped.
For the ones who hadn’t mentioned finances by forty minutes into the interview, I used my backup plan, asking, “How do you think podcasts get their money?” And just like that, we were on our way to the story of how they had, or hadn’t yet, chosen to support something they so clearly valued so much.
Although my current interview approach grew out of a tricky research topic, I’ve been using it ever since, even for topics that seem uncomplicated. Thanks to interviews that ask the fewest questions to lead to the most details, my participants are at ease and able to give me cohesive narratives that expand our understanding much more than an hour of one-after-another questions.
When we tell a story, we make sure that it has all the important details, the details that show how and why we are the way we are. Storytelling is something that each of us can do, if only we are given the time and space to find our way.