‘Probing and Prompting’

Asking good follow-up questions is part of any conversation, whether between friends arranging a lunch date or between focus group leader and participants.

As qualitative researchers, we’re taught to use listening phrases like, “Tell me more,” “Can you give me an example?” and “I don’t understand,” to bring out a participant who fails to fully express themselves during an interview or focus group. We’re also encouraged to use paraphrasing.But that’s about it. These ‘probing and prompting’ tactics are the only ones I’ve ever formally been taught.

Until now, that is. I just finished reading “Taking Responsibility for Receiving Intended Information: Clarification Tactics,” a chapter in Dr. Richard Halley’s book, Listening Models and Procedures. It was required reading for the one-year Certified Listening Professional (CLP) certificate program I’m currently enrolled in, and Dr. Halley himself teaches this component.

Dr. Halley says that one of the most vital skills a listener must learn is how to help clarify what the speaker is explaining. He points out that many people wrongly assume that the speaker carries the entire burden for being understandable. But, actually, that’s a responsibility that should be heavily shared by the listener.

In his chapter, Dr. Halley includes a full repertoire of clarifying tactics. I’ve chosen eight that I feel are specifically relevant to qualitative interviewing and then added two more. Here they are, in no particular order:

  •  Learn about hidden goals. Does it seem like the participant has an axe to grind? Do you detect a secret agenda underlying some off-base comments? If someone has a hidden goal, it can be hard to get that person to focus on the question you want answered. Once you’ve identified a hidden goal, saying something about it can sometimes help the participant focus more on your information needs. For instance, you might say, “The purpose of our discussion today is _____________, but it seems you would like to talk about ____________.”
  •  Try to establish a common vocabulary. Check the meanings of terms you are both using to be sure you have the same definition. If the interviewee uses an unfamiliar term, ask them to clarify. If you use a term for which you can imagine multiple meanings, clarify which one you mean.
  •  Encourage the speaker to ask questions. During introductory remarks you can say something like, “Be sure to ask me questions if you think I’m not understanding something.” This lets the participant know how much you value their comment and want to get it right.
  •  Ask for specifics. Getting a specific description reduces the ambiguity of the speaker’s words and adds depth to our understanding. “I liked the way the doctor called me by name and took time to listen to my concerns” gives us a lot more to work with than, “My visit was good.” When we’re given generalities we can ask, “So what was it specifically about _____________ that makes you say that?”
  •  Ask the speaker to review. We can easily miss words or misinterpret what is said. Asking the participant to review their comments, even if we think we know what they said, gives both the speaker and the listener a chance to add more clarity to what was said. You might say, “I know you’ve already explained that once but it would help me really understand if you could go over it one more time.”
  • Try to find out what something is NOT as well as what it is. You might be able to eliminate whole categories of options and avoid misinterpretations by finding out what something is not, especially with someone who is having a hard time articulating what is. If someone is trying to describe a mediocre experience with a product or service, it might help them expand their description by saying: “So it’s not that it was horrible or harmful in anyway?”
  •  Be aware of what you are assuming. This is a hard one because we all have implicit biases of which we are unaware that can cause us to make false assumptions.  As listeners, though, we’re called upon to develop sensitivity to our biases and to check out any assumptions we make with the speaker. Instead of assuming that the quiet young Asian woman in the focus group has nothing to say, it would be worth asking, “How about you, __________, I bet you have something you would like to add to what others have had to say.”
  •  Reflect empathy for the speaker. Not everyone is good at expressing themself. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have something valuable to say. If you put yourself in their shoes, you might find the patience and kindness that would make them feel appreciated just for trying to articulate their thoughts.  Maybe it’s being patient with the individual for whom English is not their first language. Or simply acknowledging how difficult it is to remember specific experiences or discuss certain topics.  People who feel appreciated try harder to accomplish the task you’re asking them to do.

I’d like to add one of my own tactics that I developed out of necessity one day during a challenging focus group I was conducting.

  • Make it relevant. If a participant offers a response that appears to have no relevance to the question I asked I rephrase the question with their response inserted. This invariably causes them to explain the connection I didn’t make or makes them realize their response had nothing to do with the question. For example, if I ask, “What makes you feel appreciated on your job?” and the respondent says, “My wife works at a place where you can’t take a day off before a holiday; I think that’s just awful; she has so many more rules than I do,” I might come back with: “So you feel appreciated on your job because the vacation policies there are more reasonable than they are in some other workplaces you know about?”

Finally, I’ll add one more tactic I noticed on Dr. Richard Krueger’s website recently. It’s a particularly good one for making listening more effective, when you can pull it off.

  • Reweave earlier comments into later questions. When you can relate something the speaker said earlier to a comment they make later it accomplishes a couple of things: 1) It signals you’ve really been listening and processing what they said; and 2) the speaker does not have to re-contextualize their comment. In other words, they can pick up where they left off with their answer to the previous question. This allows them to get more specific or go deeper with the subsequent response.

Hidden goals, multiple meanings, generalities, assumptions and irrelevant responses can all get in the way of receiving the intended message. Regardless, we as listeners have the responsibility for receiving the message as close as possible to the way it was intended.

These clarifying tactics can help. They won’t work in every situation or with every individual, but it’s nice to know that there’s more to the ‘Probing and Prompting’ list than “Tell me more” and “I don’t understand.”

What tactics or questions do you use to probe and prompt?  Let me know in the comments below and I’ll send out an addendum to the list!

1 Comment

  1. Marian Thier
    Marian ThierOctober 11,12

    I was very interested in your point about listening for what is not said or what’s behind the motivation. It reminded me to work more on this with clients who tend to leap forward in their desire to get to a decision. Thanks.

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