Empathy interviews are critical for gathering the context and perspectives ahead of an important facilitation event, as well as just simply connecting with the people you’ll be helping. Getting ready for performing the empathy interviews for a workshop is fairly straight-forward, but there are a few questions to answer before you show up in your first interview.

What’s my opening script to describe the purpose of the interview?

A good opening script introduces a few key things quickly and succinctly:

  1. Yourself / Yourselves
  2. The date, location, and purpose of the workshop this is about
  3. Why you’re the one performing this interview and what role people are playing
  4. The conditions of privacy and anonymity surrounding the event
  5. A request for their permission/comfort to continue the interview

Example: Hi Sandra, thank you for joining us. 1) I’m Eric Willeke, we met very briefly on the leadership staff meeting last week. I’m joined by Carrie, who I believe you know.  2) We appreciate you taking the time to help us gather context and perspectives ahead of the Strategy Alignment Workshop next Thursday. The workshop’s intent is to the leadership team align on a true north and a set of key strategies for next year, and 3) as the facilitator next week, I’ll use the outcomes of these interviews to ensure people’s perspectives are heard and that the hard topics we tend to avoid actually get surfaced. I also appreciate personally the chance to get to know everybody a little bit before we dive in together. Carrie will be supporting me today as my scribe so I can focus on the conversation, and she’ll also be helping out in the workshop. 4) Just as a reminder, everything you share here will be held confidential and stored where only the facilitation team has access to it. While we’ll surface patterns and strong concerns, I commit that I’ll work to avoid situations where individual person can be easily identified. 5) Based on what I’ve just shared, are you comfortable sharing your perspectives and opinions today?

What will we do with the answers?

This is in many ways fuzzy, because you don’t know what you’re going to find. (Otherwise, why do the interviews in the first place?) Considering the process of extracting the insights, though, allows us to plan ahead and sure we’re saving ourselves work later.

If you’re a single facilitator doing this on your own, you can typically just have each interview on its own page, and read them, and think, and read them again, and capture the trends and perspectives you noted, augmented by your memories of the conversations. On the other hand, if you’re part of a team preparing for a larger scale event, you won’t be doing all the interviews yourself. In this case, we’ve found it useful to have a spreadsheet with each question as a column, and each answer in the row below that cell. That allows you to quickly aggregate the responses and compare up and down each column to find trends across people’s responses. It feels awkward at first, but allows you to see the information quickly and easily once you’re used to it.  [I’ll write more about this later!]

Where will we scribe the results?

Having considered the process above, it’s now a matter of simple logistics. My goto approach for quite some time has been an isolated Google Drive folder to which only the facilitation team has access. Within that, I create a template spreadsheet with the questions, and then clone a copy for each of the people I’m interviewing. Afterwards, consolidation becomes a simple copy/paste into the master. Using it depends on your personal preferences, but make absolutely sure that the electronic notes during the interview don’t distract from the empathetic connection between yourself and the person you’re interviewing.

My own style is that both myself as lead interviewer and the scribe have it open during the interview, but only the scribe is typing. As interviewer, I tend to jot a word or two on paper for any key points I notice don’t make it into the document. Keep in mind that I do this only because I’m comfortable noting the language from my peripheral vision without distracting from the person I’m interviewing.

What roles will the interview team play in the session?

This is an area that is very tempting to wing, but it can cause a lot of problems if a pair isn’t clear about roles during the interview. Usually it’s easiest to say the interviewer does all the talking, and the scribe does all the writing. The only reason for a scribe to speak becomes “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said, could you repeat that?” It falls to the interviewer to ask all follow up and clarification questions other than strictly “I didn’t get your words” concerns. When this working agreement isn’t place, it’s all too easy for the two people to pursue different threads of inquiry, and end up breaking a chain of reasoning inadvertently.

By the way, never have more than three people present for the interview (the interviewee and two others). Otherwise, it changes the tone of the conversation significantly, and tends to dramatically reduce the learning and empathy.

What do we mean by scribe?

It’s important that the scribe is doing their best to capture the actual words and key phrases used. It’s difficult, but try not to summarize or add interpretation during the initial capture. We’ll do that later, and when there’s multiple interviewers leading different sessions it’s too easy to get “watered down opinions” by the time you consolidate if the information is already interpreted once.

What questions should we ask?

This is the hardest part, and deserves a post of its own. Take a look! 

Do we have time scheduled to debrief each interview?

This is too often forgotten in the scheduling, and it’s great for the scribe and the interviewer to have a moment to reflect and compare notes between interviews. It doesn’t need to be long, five or ten minutes are enough, but back to back interviews will lead to key points getting lost. Even if you’re doing the interviews alone without a scribe, it’s important to take a few minutes of reflection to tidy up your notes and capture anything you didn’t manage to write in the moment.

How will we share what we learned?

This isn’t critical to understand fully in advance, but thinking about the venue and technique of sharing will help you shape your mindset and inquiry in the conversations. It’s a good time to think about “We will use this knowledge internally in the facilitation team to shape agenda and prompt questions” vs. “We will prepare a readout and summary of what we have learned for verbal or written consumption.” Neither is wrong, but the precision in scribing and length of interviews might change as a result.