The Tao of Two - the delicate art of the ethnographic interview


Last week I was in the audience of an online market research seminar when the subject of the ‘one-on-one interview’ came up, with the presenter extolling the virtues of “good old conversational probing”. I couldn’t agree more. At the end, someone else in the audience posted the question “what qualifications or training do you need in order to be a good interviewer?” To which the presenter replied “a psychology degree, or social sciences…” I couldn’t agree less. It got me thinking about why and how working as an ethnographer has shaped my interview technique.

I used to work in television. As a director of factual content, interviewing was a fundamental part of the process. Now, as a video ethnographer, interviewing is still a fundamental part of the process. But there are profound differences between what you need as a journo and what you need as an ethnographer to get a great interview. 

As a journalist, the starting point is to know everything; thorough background research was the only way to manage the daunting task of facing the planet-brain of Steven Fry and the goddess-figure of KD Lang. As an ethnographer, the starting point is to know nothing; it takes a lack of preconception and an open mind to meet the everyday people that participate in our ethnographic research projects, even when they too are planet brains and goddess figures.

While it is quite possible for market researchers and also journalists to be great interviewers, there is a delicate art to becoming a master of the ethnographic one-on-one interview. An art for which there is no formula or recipe… we can however, identify the ingredients and the method and then practice baking the bread.

Firstly, a note on bakers’ best practice.

Because I’m sometimes behind the scenes as a camera operator, I’ve had the chance to see a range of interviewers at work. Those that really master the art have one thing in common, the ability to effortlessly put their interviewee at ease. I know this is on page 1 of the ‘Interview Practice 101’ textbook, but what does it really mean to “put your interviewee at ease”?

It means taking all the responsibility. I’ve observed practitioners skillfully put the interviewee at ease by quickly taking all the emotional load. Participants can feel pressure to perform on cue, get it right, be perfect, do their best, please you. The mastery is in spotting these fears and dispelling them without fuss, so that a dynamic of mutual exploration can emerge.

Back to the bread.


  • The emotional responsibility
  • The right place
  • The right posture
  • The right props
  • No clipboard
  • A deep bowl
  • Tenacious critical thinking
  • Creative storytelling
  • The right stuff
  • Heart


  • First relieve the interviewee of any expectation anxiety. Call the shots and lead the way so they can relax into the exchange knowing it’s not possible to get anything wrong. 
  • The right place is something to decide together. But in the spirit of bakers’ best practice, taking the lead averts any decision making pressure on the part of the interviewee at the same time as ensuring you’ve ended up somewhere your interviewee is happy to be. Whether it’s in-home or out and about, together you can find somewhere workable. It might be formal, it might be casual, it might be at a table, it might be in an armchair. 
  • Together you can choose to sit, stand, lean, walk, drive or any combination of these.
  • The right props help with the fact that we all have the need to fidget, to engage our ‘floating attention’ (I learned this from a participant I interviewed on a project for Wrigley’s chewing gum). Fidgeting helps us think. Having access to stuff you can hold helps the process; hug a cushion, drink tea, handle the product, do the ironing, find things to ‘show-and-tell’.
  • Put that clipboard away, it can create an authority dynamic and make interviewees feel they are being evaluated. No paper in hand. No pen. Instead, audio record and make field notes straight after. A clipboard can be a security blanket that should go back in the toy box. This is not to say you shouldn’t have a discussion guide to hand for when you need it.
  • Combine the ingredients in a deep, deep bowl. Spend a long time getting to know the person. Be discursive, ramble, understand the broader context, it’s not just about the fine detail of the research question, but how this impacts on the person, so you need to understand who that person is and what they do in order to know where and how the research question fits in to their world.
  • Knead the dough. I’ve seen great interviewers stay with a question that mere mortals would have swiftly ticked off their non-existent clipboard list. The application of skillful listening, tenacious critical thinking and unpacking around a question is what makes that dough rise fluffy and high.
  • Knead that dough more. Master interviewers make their interviewees turn answers into stories. Not “I did this, then I did this, then I did this” but rather “ I did this, and it felt like this, and it looked like this, and sounded like that and my friends said this about it, and it changed into that”
  • The right stuff is hard to describe. The best interviewers I’ve seen ‘be themselves’, but not too much of themselves, they’re strong, clear and direct but not overbearing, they’re chameleon-like, could talk to anyone but most of all they listen…the next question does not come from your discussion guide, it comes from what you’ve just heard. 
  • The tone an interviewee takes is the clue to their real meaning, and the context within which everything sits. During the findings and analysis stage of a project, tone is often the key to understanding. As corny as it might sound, to hear the tone you need to listen from the heart.
"Those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge, yes; cleverness, maybe; wisdom, no. A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn't really care.”                               Benjamin Hoff - ‘The Tao of Pooh'