Welcome back to the Safety of Work podcast. On today’s episode, we discuss how you perform ethnographic interviews.
We have had a couple of requests for this topic, so even though we couldn’t find a completely suitable paper, we decided to forge ahead anyway.
“...Reflect on all these one-on-one conversations that they had everyday in their workplace and how they could utilize these one-on-one engagements to get better insights and better information that they can use to improve the safety of work in their own organization.”
“The second main principle is to get the interviewee talking and to keep them talking.”
“I can’t think of another skill that is more useful, Drew, in your role as a safety professional than knowing how to ask good questions.”
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Drew: You're listening to the Safety of Work podcast episode 41. Today, we're asking the question, how do you do ethnographic interviews? Let's get started. Hey, everybody. My name is Drew Rae. I'm here with David Provan, and we're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. We've had a couple of requests from feedback to do an episode about how to apply ethnographic research techniques in your organization as a safety practitioner.
We went looking to try to find a paper we could discuss about this. We couldn't find one that was suitable, but we thought it was an interesting topic, so we’d do an episode about it anyway. This isn't our first how-to episode. In episode 34, we talked about how to locate research papers. Let's just consider this as our second how-to episode asking the question, how do you do ethnographic interviews?
David: I suppose this is an entirely evidence-free zone. We've both got quite a bit of experience doing ethnographic research methods, and a lot of the information in the textbooks we've referred to in preparation for this episode has that practical and empirical information. Drew, we use the word ethnography and ethnographic as if we expect people to understand what it is, but maybe just before we dive in, do you want to give a bit of an overview of what ethnography is and how ethnographic interviews might be a little bit in general?
Drew: You're putting me on the spot a little bit because I put ethnography in the title of this episode, but I haven't looked up a precise definition of ethnography. But I guess from my point of view, the idea of ethnography is to understand something by living and observing as close to it as possible. We sometimes talk about close ethnographic work where the researcher is physically in among what's happening or slightly distant ethnographic work where the work is happening nearby.
An interview is a good example of slightly distant ethnographic work, although often, interviews don't have to occur in a close interview room with two people on either side of a desk. A lot of ethnographic interviews happen out in the field, and that's how we imagined safety practitioners using this technique. It's being on-site with people who do the work, and only as far removed from the work as necessary that you can hear each other.
David: Yeah, Drew. I like the way that you described that and apologies for putting you on the spot a little bit. I'm not sure how familiar our listeners are with some of the languages that we use in research, and also how many other episodes they might have tuned in previously, but that's how I think of ethnography as well.
I think of it about it as how we understand and describe a particular situation, system, event, or circumstance in front of us and do that—like we said a few times in the podcast—with a blank piece of paper. You want to understand certain things, so what we'll talk about today with interviewing is you need to guide your data collection so that you fill that paper up with things that are going to be useful to you, not just a whole bunch of random observations. But as far as possible, you want to suspend your judgment, open up your mind, and just record the things you see, hear, and observe.
Drew: David, maybe you can say a little bit about why you think this is relevant for safety practitioners. Because we weren't actually asked to do this episode by (we know we've got some listener) researchers, but we're actually asked by a couple of practitioners if we could talk about this.
David: Drew, you mentioned at the end of your last comment just before how you imagine a safety practitioner walking around a site and don't think of this as two people sitting across a desk, and I think that's the first thing for practitioners to really think about. It's not like sitting down, getting your witness statement for an incident investigation, or some other formal process.
When I think about ethnographic interviewing, I'd almost be thinking about any one-on-one communication that takes place between yourself and someone else in your organization. The intention of that one-on-one communication, (well at least part of the intention) should be the aim of getting some kind of data, eliciting some kind of information from the other person that you are speaking with.
What you need and what we’ll talk about through this process is knowing what you're interested in terms of your data or information, then creating a structure around that one-on-one interaction so that you can elicit that data, and then what you're going to do with that. How that's useful to you and how you take it forward.
For practitioners, this could literally be a casual conversation with the site manager while you're walking around a site or a plant, or a sit-down one-on-one catch up meeting with your CEO. I would encourage—as we go through this episode—all listeners, particularly practitioners, to reflect on all these one-on-one conversations that they have every day in their workplace, and how they could utilize these one-on-one engagements to get better insights and better information that they can then use to improve the safety of working in their own organization.
Drew: Thanks for that, David. Just as you were saying that, I was thinking of something from—I think it was actually the first day I did my training in this sort of stuff. I was told that normal conversations are one-on-one engagement. In other words, it's really a two-way exchange where the value is for each person, and each person is doing a roughly equal amount of sharing and listening. Sometimes we make that mistake in safety.
We think that engagement, those conversations are not as balanced as that. They're mostly about the safety practitioner imparting and guiding, and so the purpose of the conversation is for them to convey. In fact, what we really want when we turn the conversation into an interview is the exact reverse. We want something that is a good conversation with all of the attributes of a good conversation. But we want it as much as possible to be information flowing from the person that we're listening to towards us rather than in the other direction.
Some of the tips and tricks we add in are just to make it a good conversation, and some of the things we add in are to make that flow of information go in the right direction so that we're getting the information rather than imparting it and guiding.
David: Drew, a good starting point in terms of receiving information and thinking about how much you're actually talking, how much you're actually receiving, and then how you build in some of those things around making it just a good normal conversation.
So, Drew, you've listed here some key principles, and do you want to run through them now? And then what I want to do is also try and put a lot of examples in there with them to really help out our listeners really take away some practical things that they can do with all these one-on-one conversations they're having in their business.
Drew: Okay, so we've got four sorts of top-level principles and then a whole heap of some bullet points. Let's just go through them in order and see how we go. The first overarching principle is we want to make the interviewee comfortable. That comes down to thinking about where you're doing the interview at.
One of the great advantages of ethnography is we do it as much as possible on site—an environment where the person being interviewed is familiar, they feel at home. In safety, often our sites are not necessarily the safest places to stop and have a chat, but vehicles are great. Sometimes, deliberately going and sitting in the vehicle, sometimes just being in the vehicle, driving around to and from sight is a great time to talk.
David, how are you feeling? You're in your own home sitting down. Can I get you a glass of something to drink?
David: Am I in my home, Drew? This is the first podcast. This will come out in about four or five weeks’ time from when we're recording it now. But, yes, this is the first podcast we've recorded when I'm in full-on stage for a six-week lockdown, can't leave your house at night, can't be more than five kilometers from your house more than once, or can't leave more than once a day. I should be very comfortable, but it's actually quite uncomfortable at the moment, Drew.
Drew: So what I'm hearing is I've got you trapped there unable to get away from the conversation.
David: Hence, why we're four to five weeks in front of recording a podcast. But in all seriousness, I think we talked about ethnography way back on something like episode two on why Do People Break Rules? And we talked about the ethnographic research happening in vehicles, like you mentioned, but also in lunchrooms, on worksites, and things like that.
Having a location, a place, a time, and a setting that the person who you're trying to get some information from about their life, their reality, and their perception of the world is in a setting, which is as natural as possible for them.
Drew: The second part about making people comfortable is recognizing that these things are a little bit artificial. We do want people to not be suspicious of the fact that we're having the conversation, and that requires acknowledging that we are having an interview and explaining why it's happening so that they know what the agenda is.
For researchers, we often have quite formal processes for giving people participant information sheets, et cetera. David, I don't know what you think. To be honest, I find the ethics a bit annoying because I think it actually makes people less comfortable rather than more when you say, let's have a chat. And by the way, can you sign this form before we do?
David: Yeah, when I did my research—my PhD—Drew, I set up a specific meeting just to get the ethics signed and introduce the person to the study. And then I actually set up the interview a couple of weeks after that first meeting. I literally went to a first interview just to say, this is the study. Here's the consent. Here's what it is going to be like. And I'll set up a time when we'll actually have the interview. Just to avoid that artificial situation at the start. I don't know if that's normal, but I found that process to work pretty well.
Drew: That's a fantastic idea, actually, and very often, researchers find that interviewing someone twice is more effective than interviewing them once just because that first interview is often very, very static and artificial.
David: The other thing to be really careful of, Drew, is I'm doing a project at the moment for an organization and trying to understand the work that people do in the safety organization. And obviously, there's a lot of change happening in organizations at the moment around things like roles and structures in all organizations.
For me to get the information, I need to get out of those people, then I need to explain how that's separate from getting information where they think that might result in them losing their job at some point in the future.
So being careful in safety, we know we talk about safety being sometimes very politically motivated and not having the sort of psychological safety that we'd hope to have. If you really want to get the information that you're looking for, then sometimes you need to be really clear about why the interview is happening, like you say, Drew, but how the information is going to be used and what you want the information for.
Drew: One thing that I do—and I don't quite know how effective this is—tell people what the exceptions are. And I hope that by telling them the exceptions that then leaves them comfortable about other things.
I tell them, if you tell me about an ongoing hazard that hasn't been fixed, I may have to tell someone about it. If you tell me a crime or something that you're planning to do that's dangerous, I may have to tell someone about that. Outside those bounds, you're going to be personally protected.
David: Having easy openings is another one about being comfortable. Just having some really general discussion. We now do lots of interviews, which are outside the academic world in the world of work. We always say that we always start with a personal connection, and it might be something about the weather. It might be something about COVID. It might be about a hobby. It might be about something you did on the weekend, but just easing into a conversation.
Even if you've got quite an intense sort of set of semi-structured questions and some deep thinking that you want to do during the discussion or the interview, really creating some kind of personal connection. We actually call it creating a personal connection before you ask a question.
Drew: This is something that most people should be familiar with from job interviews. The way the first question is actually just a throwaway to make the person comfortable, and sometimes we forget about that in research. We think every answer has to give us useful information, but there's nothing wrong with the first question that's not going to give you any useful information.
It's purely just to get the person used to talking, make them comfortable, and make that personal connection. How are you doing? What did you do over the weekend? Just tell me a bit about your job. What do you do here?
David: Drew, I'm going to let you introduce the next one because I don't know where you are going to take it.
Drew: The final point about making the interviewee comfortable. I've got listed here, don't be creepy. The reason I've got that is the interview process is a little bit artificial, and there's lots of stuff that you can learn about how to do it.
Lots of the stuff that you learn is just total bollocks. I'm thinking here about things like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, or the way it appears these days is often like online pick up guides—how to talk to strangers, how to make them comfortable.
I just want to reassure people that's not what you have to do in order to deliberately get better at active listening. The types of things not to do. You'll see, Dave, one of the things they mentioned is if you mention someone's name, David, very often and just drop their name casually into the conversation, David, that'll build the personal connection. And it actually just makes someone want to back off and wonder what they're getting at, David?
David: Look, I think it's a bit creepy. I think making the interviewee comfortable, if we just recap, so we talked about location, why it's happening, easy openings, and don't be creepy. There's a real difference as a safety practitioner between rolling up to a site, saying good day to the plant manager, asking to go for a walk, getting a cup of coffee, talking about the weather, and then having a discussion about some information that you're trying to get.
As opposed to setting a meeting invite, rolling up on-site, inviting someone into your office, sitting them down across the table, and launching straight in. They're very different settings, and the outcome will be, Drew, that you'll get a different depth of conversation depending on how you do that opening.
Drew: That's it, exactly. The second main principle is to get the interviewee talking and to keep them talking. To avoid injecting yourself into the conversation, actually holding yourself back from the way you normally would.
Most of us aren't conscious of the fact that when we're in conversations, we're spending more attention and effort on our own next participation than we are on the participation of the person across from us. Putting a bit of direct effort into keeping the other person talking really pays off in the quality of information that you get.
David: Yeah, Drew, I think you're right. I try to have these big landmarks, if you’re like, okay, I want to get information about these three or four things and I might have half an hour or an hour to do that. I know I need to ask three or four clear questions, and we'll talk about questions in a while, but in between that, I really make sure there's space just to let the conversation go and not course correct it too quickly before you've let it run its course with what people want to say about each topic.
You're right, Drew. If you're ready to ask the next question, then you miss the opportunity to explore more deeply the answer to the first question.
Drew: If you think about that quite literally, three or four questions over 30 or 40 minutes, that's your goal is to keep the other person talking for 10 minutes about the question that you've just asked. If you ever have the fun of an interviewing class that I'm teaching, this is one of the exercises that we give people. Your job is to keep the other person talking for five minutes without asking a question.
There's a bunch of little things that you can do that can help with this. The first one is a double barrel of scanning questions and story invitations. The idea of a scanning question is just finding out what the person is willing to talk about.
There's no point in asking a deep question about something that they've never experienced. A classic scanning question might be, has there ever been a time when you felt that you were really unsafe on-site? Notice that's actually a yes or no question. The intent is just to find out if there's a type of experience someone is willing to talk about.
Or you might give them a list and say, there's a few different things we're interested in. We're interested in particularly difficult interactions you've had with clients, with supervisors, or with senior members of staff. Are there any of those that you'd be comfortable talking about?
David: Drew, even in some of the work I mentioned just before in terms of a safety organization. Just starting the interview with a question like, look, before we dive into anything specific, really interested in your general thoughts about how the safety organization is currently functioning, and what are some of the frustrations and challenges that you face in your role?
Questions like that just let them straight off the front of their mind, launch into whatever they want to talk about, get something off their chest, really open kind of way. I find that, at least, gives someone a chance to just start talking for five minutes about whatever they want to.
Drew: Yeah, I really like that one. The idea of those scanning questions is they then give you an opportunity to ask a follow-up, which is phrased because you know they're going to have a story about something. And so you invite them to tell you that story.
If you've asked them about the safety organization, they've said like, the real problem here is we just have got really clueless supervisors. So you say, okay, so tell me a story about one of your supervisors. The problem is we can never get the right equipment. You say, okay, tell me about the worst time you were stuck with the wrong equipment.
David: I think our listeners might be able to see that scanning questions can be quite random, but it's better if it's sort of on point or on topic with the theme of the information that you're trying to get from the rest of the discussion.
Even if we're not talking about just a specific research project, I want to go back to the safety practitioner and the site manager, even just the general scanning questions about what are your biggest challenges at the moment on site? And not even talking about safety, but just starting with what are you guys struggling with at the moment on-site? Or how are things going on-site? Even something like that is just a really nice broad scanning question to set the operational context for any further discussion about safety.
Drew: Yep. David, is it’s okay, I’d like to take a little bit of a dive into some of the specific things that people can work on in order to get people talking and keep them talking.
These are actually genuinely practicable skills. They are things that we all do some of the time instinctively. But the more you're conscious of doing them deliberately, the more you can work on that deliberate interview style of getting people to keep talking.
The way I like to think about it is there's like a meter in the background that measures how comfortable the person is, and the more comfortable they are, the more aggressive or proactive you can be in trying to get information out of them. The less comfortable they are, the more minimalist you want to apply different skills to keep them talking.
David: Drew, how about you go through this deeper list? And what I might try to do is role-play the interviewer on the way through. Drew, do you want to tell me a little bit about some of these skills you can use to improve your interviewing technique?
Drew: Sure. David, thanks. The first skill is the idea of minimal encouragers. Minimal encouragement is just where you say little things to keep the person going.
David: Can you tell me a bit more about that, Drew?
Drew: Sure. It doesn't have to be a direct question or a statement. It can just be an aha, a yep, a nod, a hm, and tell me more. Just anything that just says, I'm listening and you keep talking.
Drew: You find that whereas you might be inclined to jump in with a question, just showing that you're listening and not jumping in hands the conversation back to the person with just those little sounds and dodges.
David's finding it really hard now to do this over Zoom. But if you could see the picture, you'd see he's just nodding and waving his hands to keep me talking.
David: I'm not quite waving my hands, but Drew, that's minimal encouragers, and I like the way you've described that. Have you got another one?
Drew: The second one is a reflection of the content. That's where you just pick one or two words out of what the person said, and you just repeat those words back to them as a way of getting them to keep talking.
David: A way of getting them to keep talking.
Drew: Just that little reflection hands the ball back to them in the conversation, and once they've got the ball, you will often turn that into whole new sentences or paragraphs.
David: Great, so another one?
Drew: The third one is a reflection of emotion. This is the one that is like the real stereotype is with a psychologist sitting deep thoughts and saying, I can hear the pain in your voice, or tell me what you're feeling. But the idea is to sort of just tap in a little bit to not the content of what they're saying, but the tone and just acknowledge what you're hearing. That sounds a bit frustrating. I can hear you really excited about this.
David: I can sense you're a little bit cynical of psychologists.
Drew: Not at all, but that is one of the ways in which reflection of emotion works. It's because people either say, yes, you're hearing me exactly. Or they say, no, and then they explain what they really mean and they give you the true emotion. You say you're cynical. And I say, no, actually I'm excited. It doesn't matter whether you were right or not, you've got to me emotionally engaged in what I'm saying.
David: Great. Great, and number four?
Drew: The next one is silence. Silence is one that I personally love because it's basically like a game. The person who talks next loses.
This is something that actually professional interrogators use a lot. Silence is uncomfortable and when someone breaks the silence and begins talking, they often reveal stuff that they might not have said otherwise. The general rule is to remember however uncomfortable you're feeling, the silence is never quite as long as it actually feels, and the other person is feeling that discomfort too.
Often, if you're sort of not sure what to say, just creating that silence, you feel like you've got to say something to keep the conversation going. But actually just being silent will keep it working.
David is now just going to sit here until I say the next thing, so I'll move right on because dead air on a podcast is never fun.
What happens when you try those things and the conversation just naturally spills to a stop. That's when rather than just reflecting small amounts of content, you reflect back to them what you've heard. Show that you actually weren't just listening, but you've generally understood.
David: Yeah, Drew. With that, I really like to connect certain things they've said all the way through the conversation just to bring things back up. And sometimes just that so, oh, I remember at the start of the conversation you said this, and then we talked about this, and then we talked about that. And sometimes, that's just enough to collect thoughts for the conversation to continue without even another question.
Drew: Yeah, and if you get really stuck, you don't just give a short paraphrase, but you give a whole summary of everything so far. And I could guarantee you that 95% of the time you will not get through a summary of what's been said so far before the person wants to correct you or expand on something that you're summarizing to make sure that you've really understood it, and they're off again and you go back to all of the minimal encouragers.
David: Great. Drew, those skills, and we hadn’t planned to do that, but I thought I might just have a go at it anyway. Just those minimal encouragers, reflecting content, reflecting emotion, silence, paraphrasing, and summaries.
All of those things can just help achieve what we're trying to achieve, which is to keep the person talking. Keep them talking about topics in relation to the information that we're trying to get as honestly and as genuinely as possible.
Drew: Fantastic summary, David, and that also provides a perfect segue way to the next principle, which is steering the conversation, don't lead the interviewee. All of these things so far are just about getting someone talking, and obviously there are particular things that we do want to talk about.
But the real trick is not to directly feed them those topics, but to let those topics emerge as naturally from the conversation. A few little things here. One of them is the idea of closed first open questions. David, this is probably something that's familiar to most people. But do you just want to give a quick summary on the difference between a closed and an open question?
David: I see closed questions as something that just gives a categorical or a binary type of response, like a yes or no; a red, blue, green; what color is this; or do you think this or this. As opposed to an open question, which is more probing in terms of not having those kinds of categories and choices?
I don't know what the opposite is, Drew, or how to describe it, but if I gave an example—and also one that tied back into steering the conversation, not leading it—there's a very big difference between asking a question like, do you have too many safety procedures in your company? Versus saying, what are your thoughts about the safety procedures in this organization?
Drew: Yeah, that absolutely highlights the difference between closed and open. That one of them, they might give you a longer answer, but they could (in principle) just give you a yes or no answer. Whereas the second one, there is no yes, no, or one-word answer they can give.
David: I think particularly, you need to think about a bit of a deviation here, Drew, but I’m just shooting your thoughts, you need to think about your power as an interviewer.
If you're the safety manager and you're talking to someone who's not a safety person about a safety topic, you've got this kind of moral monopoly. You've got some level of authority over the topic. If you've got an interviewee who's got a level of agreeableness, they might not want to disagree with you as the interviewer.
If they sense that you hold a certain belief about something like our safety management practices aren't effective or are effective, you need to be really careful to be completely neutral in the way that you're asking questions in the way that you're participating in the conversation so as not to just get the interviewee to just agree with you.
Drew: Yeah. There's a couple of ways that we can deal with those power imbalances. Basically by giving people almost a playful game in which they can step into those spaces in a way that is not particularly threatening to them. One of the things that looks like a closed question but is actually a fairly open question is, give me five words to describe this.
Instead of saying, do you think the safety procedures are ineffective? Or the very open question, tell me about the safety procedures. You say, give me five words that you think describe our safety procedures. It's always numbers four and five that are most revealing as people get rid of the glib answers early. You notice others jump in and say, tell me the number of four and five that you really want to say.
David: Yeah, I think it's good. Questions are really important. Close versus open questions and leading questions. And Drew, you've got another one there—unnecessary questions?
Drew: I might just quickly talk about leading questions first because this is a problem that even experienced interviewers have sometimes. When there's a particular topic that we want to know about, we've got a bad habit of including that topic in the question, and of course, that topic comes up in the answer.
Let's say I want to know what's the biggest challenge for on-site investigations? And I strongly suspect the answer is lack of adequate training. My first draft of the interview is, do you think the training is adequate? And my second draft is, tell me about the training. But I'm still leading too much. I'm still feeding them that the answer to the broader question is about training.
What I really should do is if I think the answer is training, I should just say, tell me about when investigations are difficult. And if I'm right that training matters, then training is going to come up in the answers. If I'm not right, it's not going to come up.
But if it comes up in answer to a very open question, then I can say, look, all of my interviewees, when they were asked what they needed most, said training. That's very different when I've said, do you need training? And they've all said, yes.
David: Yeah, I agree. I agree, Drew. It's something that you have to be very conscious about because we're inside our organizations, we're asked for our advice as safety professionals a lot, and we're expected to have the answers.
Actually what we're talking about here is not having the answers and not even structuring the conversation around the things that you already believe. That's why it actually takes quite a lot of deliberate thought into how am I going to engage in this one-on-one conversation to get the person's genuine view of their reality in relation to safety in their role?
That's why I think this episode is hopefully really useful to people, Drew, because we have so many opportunities every day to have really genuine one-on-one conversations that we're probably just squandering.
Drew: It's probably a good time to talk about that last category of steering the conversation, which is the idea of unnecessary questions. Rather than saying this myself, the best thing I can do is quote from the training manual that I found most useful. And later in the episode, we’ll give you a reference for this if people want to find it themselves.
It's called Geldard and Geldard. It's actually a manual for psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors. Ben, I think you can substitute the word counselor for the word interviewer, the word client for interviewee, and it all works perfectly.
The section is satisfying the interviewee’s needs. It's very easy for new interviewers to fall into the habit of asking questions at inappropriate times, instead of using other more useful micro-skills. If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself what your goal is. Why are you asking questions? Are you just curious and seeking information to satisfy your own curiosity? If so, this is not a legitimate reason for asking questions.
By asking a question to satisfy your own needs, you might interrupt the natural flow of the interviewee’s conversation. If your goal is to stimulate the interviewee into talking, then you're probably using the wrong approach. More often than not, simply reflecting back what's already been said will stimulate the interviewee into further sharing important and relevant information, without the need for you to ask a question.
This comes up constantly when we look at interview transcripts. You look at a transcript and it's just a question and answer, questions and answer, question and answer. You talk to the young interviewer and you say, what the heck is going on? And they say, I had to keep asking questions because the person was giving me really short answers. The most important thing to learn in interviewing is that it's reversed. The reason why you were getting a really short answer is because you kept asking questions.
If you want to get them to talk, you've got to shut up and stop asking questions. Dave, I know your kids are pretty young, but parents learned this. It doesn't matter whether you're talking with a client, an interviewee, or a teenager, they were all sort of interchangeable. If they're not opening up to you, the trick is not to ask more questions. The trick is to stop asking questions and give them space to open up
David: Yeah, I like that quote, Drew, and I think it is a skill. Some of the preparation for this episode reminded me of my third year psychology undergraduate degree and counseling psychology courses. I don't even know. These skills aren’t taught in safety courses at any level, but it's probably the most useful I can't think of. Another skill that is more useful, Drew, in your role as a safety professional than knowing how to ask good questions.
Drew: Yeah, I guess I should point out that safety practitioners are not counselors. One of the dangers that any interviewer experiences are if you're really good at listening, people will talk to you. Sometimes, that can actually be uncomfortable because they feel comfortable sharing stuff with you that you're not necessarily comfortable hearing.
Actually, the better you get at this the more you need to develop these auxiliary skills about setting boundaries and recognizing when the conversation is turning therapeutic instead of information collecting and steering it back away from that.
David: Yeah, that's a good point, Drew. It's good to remember the boundaries of our professional practice and our professional ethics, but I must not be very good because I don't think I've ever quite had someone tell me too much.
Drew: That could just be very good at the boundary setting.
David: Maybe. Drew, the fourth principle you got there?
Drew: Okay, so the fourth principle is about allowing space for unexpected content. This is related to the previous one that sometimes there is the stuff that we are never going to hear because we're not asking the right questions. Rather than asking lots and lots of questions, the trick is to make things that are open enough that they can actually extract even when we don't have the questions quite right.
My favorite personal one is just say, this is what the interview is about, what questions should I have asked you? And just get them to tell me what they want to talk about and they didn't get a chance to.
David: Yeah, Drew, the same piece of work that I have spoken about a couple of times through this episode, the last question that I've been entering those conversations about how to improve the roles of safety professionals has just been that general thing. Is there any message, insight, or piece of information that you want me to leave with because it can help make your role better. And just a really general open question about saying, is there anything I can do for you to help you? I find those are good open questions.
Drew: Yeah, I like that. Sometimes I use a similar one, which is the end part of this research is going to be a report to management. Is there anything that you want to make sure goes into that report?
David: I like that. I think that one's good as well.
Drew: The final principle—and I deliberately left this one to last—is the idea of old reflexivity. Reflexivity is a technical term we use in research methods, and it basically just means that the person who is doing the research can't pretend to be objective. They can't pretend that they are just these isolated cameras that are going around collecting information, with no opinions of their own, and no ability to stay on the research.
The protection is not to try to be unbiased, it's to be self-aware of the fact that we are all subjective. I don't even like the word biased because it suggests that you can be biased or not biased. We’re all subjective, it's just being aware of that.
Part of that's openly acknowledging to yourself where you’re coming from, working out what you already believe. Sometimes, I actually get my research students to interview themselves, and then to write down the results of how they would answer each of the questions just so they can recognize when their own thoughts are coming up in the interviews.
Another one is to think about what you expect the answer to be and then go back and make sure that your questions aren’t dragging that answer out of people, but are leaving room for them to give you the answer that you expect. If you think the problems with the procedures are going to be an answer to something, don't ask, are there problems with the procedures? But do ask a question that someone could naturally say that in response to—if that was in fact the problem.
David, you spent quite a lot of time doing these interviews. What sort of things did you do to manage your own position relative to the research?
David: My first go at ethnographic research was episode 30. We talked about professional identity, and if listeners might recall, I had four questions which were, tell me about your safety background, tell me how you think organizations should approach safety management, what's your role as a sector professional, and how do you judge success in your role?
I made sure that I had four very open questions. I made sure they were all personal to that person, so it didn't matter what I thought because I ask what's your background, how do you think safety should be managed, what do you think your role is, and how do you judge success for yourself in your role?
Drew, it wasn't an objective question. It wasn't something that had a right or a wrong answer, it was only the answer the person gave that was relevant to them personally. I really like that because that really helped me in my first go at this. It was a discussion where I had a role to play in arriving at what the answer was because I had absolutely no role to play in arriving at what that answer was for that person.
Drew: Tell me a bit about how you personally reacted when you got answers back, because they can't be topics that you haven't thought about yourself.
David: Yeah, it's a long time ago now, and I probably didn't do it as well as I'd like to think that I did it at the time. But when people started talking—I mean, it was pretty hard to stop people talking with those open questions, with those four questions, and a bit of minimal encouragers and some of those other techniques. The interviews went between 50 minutes and 1.5 hours with four questions.
I’d usually, either just relate an experience that I've had that aligned with an experience that someone told, or just let them feel like the answers that were given weren’t being judged, or weren’t seen as being wrong. That was really important to keep people talking, so I try to reflect on some content and reflect a little bit of my own experience that just supported that they weren't telling me a crazy story. Other than that, Drew, I don’t think I did much else to really just keep the conversation going.
Drew: What I'm hearing there is almost like very strategic inserting yourself into those interviews. In a normal conversation, they share, you share. In this case, you're sharing, but it's not just random sharing, it’s sharing in a way that's intended to show them that they are not alone, that they are supported, and that there's no wrong answer. You're matching your experiences into theirs to validate what they’re saying to you.
David: Yeah, picking snippets of what they’re saying that line up with things that you might have something too. Just share as well because if someone's sharing very personal with you, then it can help the conversation if you also find ways to share a little bit personal as well as an interviewer, not just being this blank-faced person, nodding and smiling at them, as someone starts to open up.
In that example, when people are telling me about why they decided to do something at uni, how they ended up in safety, or what I think of senior management, just putting little vulnerable, and personal kind of reflections of my own experience that lined up with their experience just kept the conversation going deeper and deeper.
Drew: David, that leads me into something that's not in our note, so I'm going to put you on the spot. What do you do when the interviewee said something that you strongly disagree with or that you think is actually wrong? How do you handle that as an interviewer?
David: Yeah, look, that's probably taken more time, and I don’t feel the need to be right about anything too much anymore. I try to react to that with curiosity. I would probably approach that as something like, I've never thought about it in that way. Or, gee, that wouldn’t have been the way that I would have normally thought about that. And just ask why would you say it like that? What's underneath your thoughts about that?
Asking in a way that just goes, oh, I haven't thought about that, I didn't know that, or that's not how I think about it, and now I'm curious, and now I want you to tell me more about why you think like that.
Drew: Thanks for that. That's one of those things that does become difficult in interviews, particularly when you feel like you're getting a surface treat from someone. If it's genuinely their opinion, fine, you can explore and expand it, but when someone's telling you something that is not correct, but they think what you want to hear can get difficult.
David: Yeah, it can get difficult, but I think in a practitioner’s sense, Drew, people have to become really comfortable with that. I've been in a few meetings lately where we've been getting some very honest feedback for parts of an organization like what the front line thinks about senior management, what middle management thinks about the safety organization, and things like that. It's really interesting just to see how bad people in organizations are taking any sort of negative feedback about their role.
The stretch challenge maybe—we didn't put in the notes, Drew, but I’d encourage—if someone wants to practice to interviewing techniques, go to your managers in your organization and ask one of the things you don't like about what the safety department does, or what other things you don't like about how I do my role? And then just shut up and listen. It would be a really interesting test of your interviewing techniques—keeping someone talking, and doing it non-judgmentally.
Hopefully, they open up and they give you some feedback that you can use to change the way you're working.
Drew: That's a great challenge, David. I have to admit, the way I usually weasel out of it is to remove myself from the interview, but use other bits of data. It's really interesting that you tell me that. I have heard from a few other people that it doesn't quite work as well as you're suggesting. Have you encountered any of those difficulties? Someone's telling me about the safety policies that everyone loves, I might say.
I have heard a few hints that you have to say that, is that really what you mean? But I guess it comes back to that comfort level we were talking about earlier that you can only really challenge and push back once you have given someone a chance to open up, you've listened, and validated.
David: Drew, we normally move in to practical takeaways, and this whole episode has really been, hopefully, quite practical in terms of takeaways. I might just do a quick summary and then ask you to share some resources that we can put in the show notes about how our listeners might do more with this.
This episode was really about having people understand that you have a lot of one-on-one conversations in your role—and by thinking about how we apply some ethnographic interviewing techniques—could get you a whole lot more insight and information that you can use in your role to improve the safety of work in your organization.
To do this, you need to make the person comfortable, you need to get the person talking, and keep them talking about things that are going to provide some insights that are useful to you. You want to steer the conversation down that track, but not lead the interviewee to just tell you what you already know, or to give you the answer that you want them to give you. And creating this spice for unexpected contents, so really open questions about what's happening outside of safety, and what's not being done in your organization that should be being done, and so on?
And then acknowledging your role in that about being reflexive. You are biased like you said, Drew, you are subjective, and you need to own that, but you need to be really careful that you don’t project that onto other people, or you're not going to get genuine information that can help you.
Drew, resources that we can put in the show notes, and our listeners can go to if they want to look at more examples and look at what techniques?
Drew: Okay. The first one that I would recommend is one of my favorite books on my shelf. It's called Basic Personal Counseling by David Geldard and Kathryn Geldard. It's a four-part book, three of them are to do with actual crisis style counseling, but part two is purely about basic principles and skills.
It doesn't just describe the skills, it tells you how to learn them, how to practice them, and how to use them in normal conversation and in different situations. I recommend that as one of the standards for safety practitioners’ shelf.
David: Drew, I might just jump in there because I don't know if David and Kathryn are sisters, or husband and wife, but if they're husband and wife, and they've written a personal counseling book that you recommend, that would be a fascinating dinner table conversation.
Drew: I have to say, when I first let this stuff, my first way of using it was just to try it out on my mother. Come home, ask her a question, and see how long I could keep her talking before she realized I was practicing the counseling training. The second one, this one's a bit more of a textbook. It's Qualitative Organizational Research edited by Gillian Symon and Catherine Cassell. In particular, there's a great chapter in there by Kathryn Haynes, which is just about reflexivity. How do you put yourself and understand yourself in your own role in qualitative research.
David: Drew, I think when I first walked into my PhD, you recommended that to me, and I've still got it at the front of my shelf. I actually flick through it more regularly than I thought I would after doing my research. Drew, we’ll put those references in the show notes. Any invitations to the listeners from this episode?
Drew: I guess the first thing we just like to ask is, is this content useful for you? How often is interviewing part of your job? Or would you like it to be part of your job? If you've got any tips or tricks of your own that you’d like to share where you’d like to start a little bit of LinkedIn conversation. We've mentioned a lot of our own shorthands and tools that we use. What do you use? What questions to get people talking and keep them talking?
Of course, I'll just put in a plug here that if there is any interest in training sessions for this stuff, this sort of stuff is—I find personally—very fun. It's something that I really like to do—equipping people for having genuinely good conversations, rather than those persuasive conversations that other types of safety try to teach.
David: Like I mentioned earlier, sort of unscripted, Drew. It was only when we were halfway through this episode that I realized just how important this skill is, and how little each represented in a lot of our safety related training for safety professionals, so that's a great offer.
That’s it for this week, Drew. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes to us at email@example.com.