Interviewer and interviewee
Maximise your interview success by brushing up on your active listening skills.

Active listening skills are a must

Effective interviewers know the value of active listening skills. So, what are they and why do they matter?

Think for a moment about times in your life when you truly felt listened to. Now recall what your listener was doing…in terms of their body language, attitude and level of engagement while you were speaking.

It’s called ‘active listening’ because it requires both people to engage in a two-way conversation. Why is it so important to your interview? If the participant isn’t confident you’re really listening, they are likely to withdraw from the conversation and provide superficial answers to wrap up the interview quickly.

Let’s look at the characteristics of active listening, so you can begin practising them now in your interactions with others.

Body language

Your body language should show you are relaxed and ready to give your undivided attention. Where possible, avoid physical barriers such as tables and even crossing your arms. Also resist ‘hiding’ behind a clipboard, laptop or PC. While you’re taking notes or referring to them, do so in a way the participant does not feel excluded or ‘reported’ on.

Listening actively means being conscious of your posture, leaning slightly towards the person. Use natural gestures, but avoid fidgeting, if you’re prone to it. Clicking pens, chewing gum, jiggling feet and continual repositioning in your chair is not going to help set your participant at ease.

Turn off your phone, take a deep breathe and let go of whatever else is on your mind. Keep your focus completely on the person in front of you. Your research participant is giving up their time to help you with your project and may potentially be taking an emotional risk in opening up to you about their story. They deserve your full attention and the quality of your interview will suffer if you fail to give it.

Eye contact

In some cultures, direct eye contact can show a lack of respect. In Western culture, maintaining gentle eye contact during the interview is essential. It shows you’re listening, interested and engaged. You’ll need to decide on what is appropriate, depending on your geographical location. If you’re not usually comfortable maintaining eye contact, commit to being more aware of increasing your eye contact and observing the impact this has on your conversations.

Encouraging cues

Sometimes the interview participant won’t feel sure they’re providing you with the ‘right’ answers or be confident of how much detail you really want. At times we’ll need to subtly signal to the speaker to continue and hopefully reveal more layers of their story.

Encourage them to continue speaking by maintaining attentive body language that shows you’re interested and engaged. Maintaining eye contact will reassure them, as will nodding your head. You could ask a clarifying question to help the conversation to continue and also use short phrases and words such as:

  • Uh-huh…
  • Go on…
  • You were saying…
  • Tell me more about this…

Reflecting content and feeling

These techniques are used by counselling professionals and work well to make your participant feel ‘heard’. It involves reflecting back to them what has been said or what they’re feeling in your own words. It shows you have listened, because it evidences you have not only absorbed what was said, you have been able to interpret it back in fresh words.

To reflect content, you paraphrase what was said in your own words. It could be posed as a clarifying question as well, so if you have misunderstood what was said, your participant can clear up any confusion. This ‘checking in’ also helps to build trust and rapport.

For example:

  • So, you walked into the classroom and every child was dancing?
  • After the operation, you just fell apart?
  • You were stuck in the elevator for half the night!
  • You were ready for a new challenge.

To reflect feelings, you capture the essence of the participant’s emotion and name it. Naming the emotion is particularly helpful for rapport building. It shows your participant you truly understand what they’re feeling.

For example:

  • The flood left you feeling completely numb for quite some time.
  • You must have been ecstatic to win the scholarship.
  • You were sad and grieving.
  • You finally reached your lifetime goal, only to feel let down?

Reflecting techniques reassure your participant you’re engaged and in tune with them. They will help to keep the flow of your conversation going, demonstrate empathy and develop trust. From there, your interview has greater potential to dig deeper.

Allowing silence

Don’t be afraid to allow moments of silence during the interview. Some people become nervous when there’s a gap in the conversation, however your participant may simply be pausing to consider your question or reflect on their feelings before answering. It’s important not to ‘jump in’ and answer for the participant or rush someone along because you’re not comfortable with silence.

Your task

Start becoming more fully present in the personal interactions you have in your daily life and see how the quality of your conversations and relationships transform. Self-awareness is the first step toward improving your interpersonal skills and becoming a more confident qualitative researcher.

Select the comments link and join in the discussion. We’d like to know what do people in your life do to show you they are listening…and what do they do that shows you they are not? You may also want to share what active listening skills you’re already aware of and using and which ones will require some more practice.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

Griffith University