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Stefanie Leite on Building Rapport during Telephone Interviews

My name is Stefanie Leite and I am a Research Assistant for Advanced Empirical Solutions and an Independent Evaluation Consultant.  Interviewing is my favorite means of information gathering.  There is something immensely satisfying about asking people to tell their stories, capturing them accurately and artfully, and then relaying them to the decision makers in an evaluation report.  Most interviews that I’ve conducted have afforded me 60 minutes to build a relationship with someone I have never met where there is no handshake, eye contact, or smiles exchanged.  So for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to share with you some (albeit low-tech) things that I’ve learned about building rapport with interviewees over the telephone.

Hot Tip:

  • Prepare yourself ahead of time – learn about the person you will interview and learn some of his/her industry’s jargon.
  • Demonstrate genuine enthusiasm and curiosity to speak with the person.
  • Smile while speaking – it projects a positive attitude.
  • After introducing yourself and the purpose of the interview, engage the person in light conversation to help him/her relax.
  • Begin the interview with easy, non-threatening questions.
  • Give 110% of your attention – remove distractions (e.g. turn off call waiting) and focus on what he/she is saying.
  • Use active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing, to assure your interviewee that you’re listening and to assure yourself that you’ve understood.
  • Offer verbal reinforcement that does not qualify what the interviewee said – for example, “I understand,” “uh-huh,” and “I see” are safe options.
  • Know the interview protocol well enough so that it can be read without sounding like it’s being read, and you can ask questions without hesitancy.
  • Try to subtly mirror the speech patterns of the interviewee, such as speed, pitch, volume and pronunciation, because similarity puts people at ease.
  • Avoid using a speakerphone, if possible.
  • Allow for a few moments of silence before rephrasing the question.
  • At the end of the interview, thank the person and indicate that you found the interview useful and worthwhile.

Rad Resource: Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences 3rd Edition by Irving Seidman. Available on http://www.amazon.com/

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 aea365@eval.org.

4 thoughts on “Stefanie Leite on Building Rapport during Telephone Interviews”

  1. Marcus, David and Sheila — Thank you very much for your comments! I am so glad that you found the telephone interviewing tips useful.

    Marcus, Best of luck to you as you embark on your qualitative evaluation journey! I wish you many moments of enjoyment and discovery while hearing their stories.

    David, Thank you for asking why I recommended to avoid the use of the speakerphone. Sheila’s comments about the difficulty hearing and distracted thinking that can often occur when using a speakerphone were right on target. I also add that there is sometimes a social undertone to using a speakerphone. For instance, when you use a speakerphone you may sound a mile away from the interviewee, as opposed to speaking directly into a hand or head set. For rapport building, you want to sound to the interviewee as though you are actually sitting in the room with them. I use a little gadget that eliminates the need to use speakerphone when you record telephone interviews — the Olympus Mini Tele-Recording Device. It is a tiny microphone that you place in your ear underneath the telephone receiver and plugs into a digital recording device. It picks up both your voice and the interviewee’s voice very clearly and helps to eliminate environmental noises from being picked up on the audio recording, such as keyboarding or shuffling papers. It’s an excellent (and modest) investment if you conduct a lot of telephone interviews!

    Sheila, Thank you for responding to David’s comment about using the speakerphone. I have also been on the receiving end of interviews via speakerphone, and my experiences have been very similar to yours. I felt embarrassed having to ask the interviewer to repeat himself several times because I could not hear the question. Thanks also for the excellent tip to test the sensitivity of the audio recording device! How frustrating to lose your data that way. Words of wisdom to the rest of us!

  2. I’ll make 3 comments here. First, to Stafanie: thanks for the great tips! This post is well organized and as Marcus mentioned, includes great tips for interviewing in person, as well as on the phone.

    And to David: I am one who finds speakerphone absolutely annoying, and I all but refuse to speak to someone who puts me on speakerphone unless I need to be part of a conference call. I often have difficulty hearing well when the other party uses a speakerphone and the muffled, distorted voices are enough to distract my thinking. If you were interviewing me and using speakerphone, you would likely not get the best from me.

    And lastly, a tip from my own dissertation research during which I used telephone interviews. Test your recording equipment for sensitivity! 🙂 I lost valuable data when I shuffled some papers while my interviewee was speaking to me. I was using a microcassette recorder attached to the phone, so I didn’t think the mic would pick up my gentle page turning.

  3. Thanks Stefanie, sound advice. I’m interested in yr suggestion ‘Avoid using a speakerphone, if possible’. What’s the basis of that suggestion, please? I always use a speakerphone and record the interview that way.
    Regards – David

  4. Hi Stefanie,

    Thanks for the great tips! It is particularly timely since in a couple of weeks, I’m beginning my first purely qualitative evaluation project with ex-offenders. The only difference being that these will be in-person, as opposed to via the phone. Nonetheless, most of your tips still appears to be fairly applicable. I’ll be sure to keep these in mind!

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