Interviewing as mentoring
While working on our 'Retirement planning' project, Suzanne Burdon and I created a non-linear interview format that allows the person we are interviewing to describe and define in their own words how they were making sense of the world they were experiencing. This idea is based on the theory of sensemaking. Sensemaking is about how people muddle through, working things out as they go along, to move forward as best they can. It's a theory that rejects the idea that people make decisions in some kind of context-free way. Sensemaking theory has been applied extensively and productively for several decades in management consulting and information science. I came across it in 2016 and have been writing about and working with sensemaking ideas since then developing a model that suited commercial qualitative research and the kinds of problems for which we receive briefs.
What sensemaking teaches us about how to interview
Sensemaking teaches us that to expose the assumptions and presumptions of other people we must jettison our own. To do that, we have to jettison the traditional 'topic guide' which in turn means letting go of the traditional role of the interviewer as the person in command of the conversation.
Instead of interrogators with a topic guide, we see our role as mentors, helping the person we are speaking to see the 'mental frame' they are using when they talk and think about this particular issue or problem. How are they making sense of all these different aspects of their life situation, how do they interact, how do they prioritise them, and how in particular do they make sense of the ways in which they might change?
In our retirement example, some people frame retirement as a question of identity - for example thinking of themselves as too young to retire. Others see retirement as a social problem, trying to manage relationships with an already-retired partner, or with still-working friends. For some, it has more to do with employment opportunities than with either of these.
This method of mentoring people towards sensemaking can be used for a wide range of products and services. The more of these mentoring conversations of this kind that we have, the more we are convinced that it is a way to see more clearly exactly how people ‘muddle through’ and work things out (even though that might seem an oxymoron.