Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: Learning from Strangers

Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview StudiesLearning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies by Robert Stuart Weiss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my line of work (nonprofit consulting) we develop a lot of information for our clients. Decision makers need to know what is working, and what is not working, as they assess their organization's performance, adjust programs, and make strategic plans for the future. Quantitative data is a good thing. In fact, we organizational development people regularly preach about the importance of knowing what your performance indicators are and making sure you are collecting and evaluating the data. It's the qualitative data that I personally deal in most often, however. It's perspective from the various people associated with an organization (internal and external stakeholders.) It's the subjective stuff.

This classic work on the art and science of collecting high quality (actionable) qualitative information via interview has stood the test of time. Some of the basic lessons - the value of confidentiality, the indispensability of neutrality and trustworthiness, the importance of waiting until the data is all in before beginning an analysis - have served me very well across my career. It's great to have this book on the shelf as a reference guide to consult when I feel stumped. More often than not, the issue can be addressed by a quick refresher on technique.

Interviewing others is one of my first favorite things to do. People are always interesting when you take the time to get to know where they stand on important issues. I think I also enjoy it because - frankly - it tends to bring out the best in me. I always do a much better job of listening to people when I am "interviewing" them than I do when we are just talking. People I have interviewed will often tell me later that they feel like I understand them, which always significantly advances a facilitated process.

Says Weiss, "Interviewing is our only defense against mistaken expectation." So true. The only way to know what someone expects, hopes for, worries about, or anticipates is to ask. It is also the only way to know how they interpret past events. There is no substitute for developing qualitative information from stakeholders during any kind of evaluative or planning process. So glad Dr. Weiss took the time to write this book outlining the key principles of interviewing. It is enormously helpful, even outside the academic context.

Click here to download a two-page summary, written by me, for free.

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