Let your interviews be like Oedipus

Oedipus - after most of the drama is done - children, please don't try this at home! (picture: http://law.marquette.edu)

Or any Greek drama for that matter. Not that anyone should murder his father and marry his mother in the course of it. But you don’t want an interview to be a bunch of questions that are randomly following each other. You want it to have a dramatic flow with a quiet and easy start, establishing the background, some drama and maybe even conflict in the middle and a resolution in the end. There is a reason why this has been the way meaningful stories have been told for 3000 years or more: It works. It helps us put things in order, give meaning and understand connection between seemingly random events and it leaves both, the story-teller and the listener deeply satisfied.

How do you know that you have designed your interview (and it doesn’t have to be a Net-Map) in a way that allows your interview partner to reenact an antique drama? Try telling me the great story line in a few clear sentences. Like this: We start painting the background by drawing a straightforward clear structure of either formal lines (e.g. authority) or physical flow (e.g. of goods, money). The next link is more informal, less clear, maybe situation and personality driven, might circumvent some of the clear structure of the first link (e.g. political pressure, conflict, friendship). The tension builds. The big drama starts when you put up influence towers and the interview partner has to make the tension between formal and informal links explicit and tell you which ones actually make an actor influential. In a group interview you might actually see sparks in the air while you group debates why this and not that actor is most influential. Finally, after all that drama, you need the resolution, the morale of the story. That’s what happens in the qualitative discussion after the mapping. You ask: What does that mean? What can / should we do? Where do the main problems come from? How could this change? These questions give closure to the interview but also open the door to possible next steps: How do you take what you have learned in this play into the real world…?

Very often, when interviews or group sessions feel like something went wrong, it is because they lacked this choreography: Maybe you didn’t allow your interview partners to draw the background because you thought you knew it already and wanted to jump into where the drama was right away (in this case: no formal/material links, just informal ones). This way you can’t build the friction between what should be and what is, so no high drama in the middle (even though you thought you had found a short-cut to get there). Or maybe you want to avoid any drama, because this is only about collecting objective facts, right? Your interview partner and you fall asleep in the middle of it, because you just ask one question next to the other and you never get to a tough point where you have to dig deeper to understand meaning or relevancy. Well, after you wake up you can do some equally solid and slightly dull data analysis, but you haven’t really gathered a new understanding of the world here. Another thing that sometimes happens, and might even be the effect of doing stuff right in the first half is that you run out of time and once every last link is drawn, every last influence tower is set up, you have to run, abandoning your interview partner just as all the drama is over, hanging in the air, without meaning or closure. This doesn’t only mean that you will both be confused and slightly frustrated afterward. But you are also missing out on the most profound learning, on the meaning and morale of your story. In my experience, the time you spend after building the plot step-by-step, looking at it from a birds eye view, discovering the great lines and asking your interview partner to interpret it for you, is the richest part of the interview. You couldn’t get there, without going through the drama before. There is no shortcut. But don’t think you can skip the last step, just because it is not as scripted and structured as the ones before.

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