Up-level your semi-structured interview technique for your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA): using prompts and probes to keep the conversation going and achieve greater depth

Updated February 2022

Following on from my article about developing a boomtastic interview schedule for your Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) study, I address interview technique in this episode. Specifically, I will talk about the best way to employ prompts and probes in your semi-structured interview (SSI) to help your participant open up, keep them talking, and mine the interview for richer data so that you can achieve more depth.

An initial word of warning

It is quite common for participants to kind of blurt out or word vomit everything of importance to them in a very short response to a question, leaving you (the interviewer) wondering where there is to go after that…and you may only be a few minutes in!

The trick here is NOT to freak out and rush ahead with the next question.

Stay put with what you have just asked about and try to draw out more talk (data) by employing the tactics below. 

A general rule for semi-structured interviewing: don’t talk too much and let the participant lead

Try not to talk too much in the interview as a rule.

A good SSI for an IPA will be participant-led, allowing them to set the parameters of the topic.

Ideally, you want to refrain from being leading in the interview and therefore need to take a back seat.

In addition, the more you say, the more you have to transcribe what you say! You learn pretty quickly to keep schtum, especially if you are transcribing yourself.

How to show the participant that you are listening to them

So, you may be asking yourself: how can I show the participant that I am interested and want them to continue without saying much? Well, a great deal can be achieved with:

  • Your body posture (e.g., leaning forward attentively, even online)
  • Your facial expressions and eye contact (e.g., adopting an interested facial expression to show that you are attentive and nodding with good eye contact)
  • Employing ‘minimal encouragers’ such as mmm-hmm, aha and mmmm and nodding to show that you are listening and to encourage them to continue speaking

These simple tricks can really foster the participant’s opening up and going deeper into what they are telling you.

Active listening is key to being flexible with your interview schedule

Do your absolute best to listen actively and carefully to what is being said.

This will enable you to be flexible with your interview schedule and avoid going over what has already been addressed by the participant if they answer a question before it has been asked.

Remember the power of staying with silence

Take your time and do not hurry your participant.

Remember that embracing silences can be a powerful way to prompt the participant to continue as they will most likely feel compelled to fill the silence/gap if you do not!

So, hold your nerve and sit with silences as they will give the participant time to reflect, and they will most likely come up with something further if you keep quiet. Your silence could signal both permission and encouragement to continue.

Be mindful that anxiety may make this challenging to enact! But do your best to allow the silences to develop and hang in the air for a while – you might be surprised what arises out of them!  

Extending and following up more deliberately

Be sure to engage in this strategy by actively listening to what is being said and then employing short, direct phrases such as:

  • Could you say a little more about that? (useful if they seem to have finished but you think there could be more and to clarify)
  • Can you describe that in more detail? (helpful to get them to be more specific rather than vague and general and to clarify)
  • How did that feel at that moment? (to delve a bit deeper and clarify)
  • Can you give me an example? (helpful to get them to be more specific rather than vague and general)

You could ask them to be more specific (e.g., and then what did you do after that?) and could also ask for clarification if necessary although these are likely to be closed questions and should be employed sparingly (e.g., when you said X, did you mean blah blah blah?)

Unpacking material that comes up when they are in flow, and you don’t want to interrupt!

Try taking brief notes (having warned your participant that you will be doing so in your preamble to set things up) of anything of interest that comes up but is not elaborated upon while the participant is in flow with their conversation.

These notes are really just a reminder for you to follow up later when they pause in their flow or exhaust the current point.

You can then ask them to go back to the point of interest that you noted and elaborate upon it. For example, ‘you mentioned X a moment ago, and I was wondering if you would be comfortable telling me some more about that?’

In this way, you can continue to mine the interview without having to ask further questions from your schedule, therefore moving your participant on, possibly prematurely. 

Practice makes perfect when it comes to SSIs

Finally, remember that practice most definitely helps develop this essential skill – do as much as you can in advance and in a ‘safe’ environment (e.g., with a peer researcher or study buddy) to help you prepare and feel less nervous on the day.

The Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2009) IPA ‘bible’ pages 62 to 71 gives great input on preparing for and conducting both SSIs and unstructured interviews. I encourage you to access this helpful resource.

Smith, J.A., Larkin, M., & Flowers, P. (2009). Interpretative phenomenological analysis: Theory, method and research. London: Sage

In the 2022 Second Edition, Chapter 4, ‘Collecting data’ is where you want to immediately head for guidance

Braun and Clarke also have an excellent chapter on interviewing, including preparing for and conducting qualitative interviews in their wonderful 2013 text. This is also highly recommended.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: a practical guide for beginners. London: Sage.

Get IPA-specific support with your SSIs

Finally, just to mention that I obviously go into this area in a great deal of detail on my Supercharge Your Semi-Structured Interviewing workshop. I lead you by the hand through the process of preparing extensively for the interview process and learning the requisite skills to gather in-depth data via your SSIs

It is well worth remembering that sometimes you can achieve richer and better-quality data in a well-managed 30-minute interview than you will in an hour of random, unfocused chat….

I very much hope that these tips and tricks will help you get what you want with your IPA interviews.

Until next time!

To your research success, Elena

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