Deborah Grodzicki on Asking Sensitive Questions during Interviews and/or Focus Groups

Hello, my name is Deborah Grodzicki and I just received my Masters in Organizational Behavior and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University.  I plan to pursue a PhD in Evaluation at UCLA in the fall.  Prior to attending Claremont Graduate University, I investigated complaints against New York City police officers.  During my time as an investigator, I gained experience questioning civilian complainants and police officers about extremely sensitive issues.  Drawing on this experience, I will give some tips on how to obtain essential information without compromising evaluator – stakeholder relationship.

Hot Tip: Do not be a prisoner of your question list. At their most basic, interviews and focus groups consist of the evaluator asking stakeholders a list of questions.  To make these qualitative measures most effective, however, it is critical to maintain flexibility in your questioning and establish a conversational atmosphere.  Do not use the questions as a crutch, but rather as a directional tool for the conversation. Otherwise, you risk casting yourself as an interrogator, which could result in the individual withholding vital information.

Hot Tip: Check your biases at the door. It is natural to come into a situation with personal biases that may affect how you approach an interview and/or focus group. It is important to be mindful of these inevitable biases and make a conscious effort to prevent them from affecting how your questions are phrased and delivered. Faced with a biased or leading question, a stakeholder is more likely to provide more restricted answers that mirror the bias and unduly skew the results.

Hot Tip: Withhold judgment. When conducting interviews and/or focus groups, never give someone the impression that you disapprove of their thoughts, feelings, or actions.  It is up to you as the evaluator to generate a safe, comfortable, and above all, accepting atmosphere. Only then will a stakeholder freely share their impressions about the evaluand.

Hot Tip: Look them in the eye. During my time as an investigator, I was taken aback by how many of my colleagues broke eye contact when a complainant spoke about a sensitive issue. Though seemingly insignificant, this small action can have substantial consequences. Failing to maintain eye contact at the stakeholder’s most vulnerable moment gives the impression that you are uncomfortable hearing what they have to say.  Sensing this can lead the stakeholder to feel self-conscious and promptly shut down.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to

2 thoughts on “Deborah Grodzicki on Asking Sensitive Questions during Interviews and/or Focus Groups”

  1. Nicole Vicinanza

    Thanks for the great tips, Deborah- The one about not being a prisoner of your question list certainly resonates- some of the best information you get can come from unanticipated lines of questioning. One note- I believe that when to make eye contact/how much eye contact is appropriate varies from culture to culture- knowing the culture and the specific group of folks you’re working with (e.g. are they first generation immigrants? How acculturated are they?) can make a big difference in their comfort level.

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