The Process Interview – A Quest
An extract from Bengt Bok’s book, ‘Encounter with the Other: Some Reflections on Interviewing’. You can buy the full English translation of this text here.
The quest for a story by means of the interview is like researching in the field of human beings. The story says something about the storyteller and his or her world, and gives us the opportunity to understand the Other (and ourselves).
At times, the process and the interview situation are reminiscent of a psychotherapy session. The person being interviewed is encouraged to reveal his or her innermost thoughts and feelings. The method involves probing for potential sore points and seeking out their causes. To regress back into the Other’s history and have the courage to travel with them. It’s then decisive for the progress of this process that I don’t place myself on the outer, but am there with the Other in his or her world.
My capacity to listen is fundamental to how the interview will turn out. I mustn’t force anything, mustn’t be ‘cocky’… or know best. I must ask questions that lead to the whole person – not just to the good or evil in him or her.
Getting interviewees to talk can be the entry into their stories. (Not just answering questions). By telling their story, the interviewee is activated, and can put their world and experiences into their own words. The interviewee must be able to tell their story under conditions in which they feel safe and secure, and to someone who is listening. How the interview then develops has its origins in what comes out of the encounter between me as the interviewer and the interviewee. A relationship where neither of us knows the answers in advance.
I am fooling myself if I believe that I already understand how another person feels, or think that I know what the Other is trying to say. Often, it is more difficult than it at first appears to understand the world of the Other.
To care about the Other is perhaps the deepest form of understanding. To take the step from observing how a person appears to be, seen from the outside; to trying to see the world through his or her eyes, based on the person’s background and experience.
In psychology there is the idea that as a human being I am more interested in knowing that another human being wants to try to understand me than that he or she actually does understand me. The effort and will involved in trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of the person being interviewed are in all probability a sign of affirmation and recognition that opens the door for the person to tell their story. It is a process, a movement forward. On the other hand, if I already think that I understand the Other, there is a risk that the whole process will grind to a halt. “I really understand you” provides no opening at all. There is no curiosity in this statement, no driving force, no energy.
There is always more to learn.
If I am to approach another person’s sore points, I must do so on the basis of a genuine curiosity and wanting to know and understand – not because I am seeking the sensational. The driving force must be curiosity, not speculation.
But what is genuine curiosity in me? (And what is manipulation?) Sometimes the desire to get a good story is greater than ethical considerations. And where, in this equation, are the Other’s wants and needs?
The structure and nature of the process interview is the repeated encounter. What happens in me and the Other during this process?
Analysis is the technique used in this process. The first interview is the foundation for the second interview, the second interview is the foundation for the third, etc. Before I move on to the next interview, I must analyse the previous one thoroughly and take these experiences with me into the next interview. Signals, flags, suspicions or lies that I didn’t quite apprehend during the previous interview, but which now become apparent in the analysis. Or questions that I didn’t dare ask but which, after the analysis, I realise I must ask. Or stories that I didn’t dare listen to, but which I now realise I must have the courage to listen to.
The process interview requires that you stubbornly, and sometimes with a certain amount of awkwardness, approach doors that have been left ajar… To seek out different layers of time, undertones, words… breaths… silences. To insist on vigilance, to ask questions instead of formulating answers. The process interview requires faith that there is something more there…
…in a time perspective of stored experiences.
It can sometimes be necessary to probe a sore point in order to deepen the portrait. The sore point might constitute the person having cut themselves off inside of themselves, a tragedy in the person’s life, or a limitation of some kind. A limitation that makes it impossible for the person to develop and grow.
Sometimes it can be problematic and difficult for the person interviewed to talk about a sore point and it may well also be difficult to pinpoint it. The responsibility then lies with me as the interviewer to interpret the answers and stories I get during interview so that I can lead the person towards the sore point. I do this by being curious, listening and trusting my intuition. This then becomes more like the analysis part of the process, but in the moment.
Could it be so that the most yielding thing we have, our intuition, is that which can detect the weakest signals from the Other?
If the Other shuts me out, closes down, I must first look for the cause in myself. It might be my fear that is putting a spanner in the works, not the Other’s. If I don’t have the courage to press on, there is a substantial risk that the Other will feel betrayed and abandoned, and that a crisis of confidence will arise (now that I am finally daring to speak, he doesn’t dare to listen…).
The person being interviewed must feel and comprehend that I have what it takes to receive his or her story. If he or she starts to tell me a story from their innermost depths, it means something. I must have the courage to go with them, listen and ask further questions.
If a trust and fundamental respect has been established between us, I make the ethical decisions during the editing process – not during the interview.
Touching on a sore point, opening up and telling one’s story can be liberating for the person being interviewed. He or she might never have told their story to anyone before, or even been conscious of it as the source of their actions and emotions. (In psychotherapy, the theory is that a trauma can only be overcome if it can be communicated to others.)
Psychotherapy is about change. Someone needs a new life story. You cannot relive your life, but you can give your life story a new meaning that makes it possible to live a better life from now on and into the future. There are more similarities between the psychotherapy session in the process interview – and differences… The absolutely decisive difference is that therapy aims to give the patient insight into, and an understanding of, his or her own life, and in the long run to make changes in it. The interview aims to give the viewer, the listener, insight into the life of the Other in order to tell the story of an injustice, a struggle, a creativity… As the interviewer, it is not my aim to liberate the person being interviewed from his or her burdens…
…I cannot give the Other a better life.
Perhaps the most difficult moment in a process is staying there, at the sore point, at the core. It would be easy to be satisfied with having reached this point, but then not daring to stay there but simply hurrying away before the situation becomes too emotionally charged. (Never stop an interview just when it has finally begun.) There is a whole world of thoughts beyond the sore point; a world I can only reach if I have the courage to stay with it. A sort of hiatus sets in… don’t expect anything to happen – just simply be there.
We are so used to there always being something happening, but if there isn’t… What do we think in that case… What then do we experience?
Have the courage to stay with it, there at the sore point… Have the courage to probe deeper into it.
There is a ‘but’… a rational objection to this. Sometimes it is more ‘efficient’ from the dramaturgy point of view to consciously circle around a sore point without actually touching on it. In this way, I show that something is hidden there… find fragments of it… move in its vicinity, but don’t go in… remain outside, deliberately… not out of fear. Something about life is then told via these fragments.
There are also turning points in a person’s life. In many instances, these are just as significant as their sore points. I might have lived a life filled with setbacks and humiliation, and then suddenly there is something positive there… an insight… a feeling… a desire… Is there something there that the Other wants to talk about? The story of the turning point… life before the turning point… the actual moment… and life after…
If I want to be able to detect weak signals, I must not be too goal-oriented… If I am, I will likely (probably) be blind to the unexpected, the unpredictable, that which can only be sensed if my attention is only fixated on one track, one question.
To listen intuitively, unprejudiced, unbiased, makes it easier to shift my attention and free myself from a question, if so required. To return to later perhaps. To be absolutely in the moment, but at the same time in the past.
How do I recreate events, how do I get the Other to remember, to take us back in time….
…are there key words, places, people, events, things that can assist me?
Maybe the Other might be helped by remembering details.
“Do you remember anything in the room?” I ask her.
“I remember a mirror.” She replies.
“Why?” I continue.
“I saw myself in the mirror.” She says and looks me in the eye.
“What did you look like?” I wonder.
“I don’t know… I don’t remember.” She hesitates.
“Do you remember what you were wearing?” I try.
“…Yes, actually. I was wearing a red jumper… and I had my silver heart round my neck. I had got it for my confirmation… Now I remember… I was very pale I thought… I also had on my silver tiara…. I was scared.”
“Why was that?”
“Mummy had gone to the movies with some friends. But he was still in the house. It was the first time I’d been alone with him… He was Mummy’s new boyfriend. They had always been together before, you see.”
“What did it look like in the room?”
“It was quite dark… I think only my bedside lamp was on… Wait, now I remember… I was on my way to lock my bedroom door, but I didn’t get there in time…”
Nothing that happens to us is ever lost?
I try in some way to go back in time from the event that the Other doesn’t quite remember. “What were you doing beforehand? …and before that?” To then go forward again and try again.
Every question sparks a new question; every memory sparks a new memory.
What happens if I ask the Other to tell the story in the present tense? Or if I ask questions in the present tense… will the Other then reply in the present tense? Setting the scene for the memory… to recreate the past… the past becoming the present?
“What do you see when you enter the room?” I begin.
“A woman is coming towards me.” He replies… in a whisper.
“What does she look like?” I ask.
“She is wearing a police uniform and holding a paper in her hand, she looks at the paper and then at me… ‘We have reason to suspect that you have violated your daughter’ she says to me…” He looks at me.
“What do you do then?” (‘Keep to the present tense’ courses through my mind.)
“I don’t do anything, I’m completely silent… ‘You surely understand what I mean’ she says then…”
“What happens with you?”
“I start to sweat and feel ill… The woman in front of me believes that I have violated my daughter… I can see in her eyes that she is disgusted by me… I can see that… No-one is going to believe me. I understand that… I feel empty… The ground starts to sway around me. I hate the woman… I want to kill her… But I am so afraid that my whole body starts shaking.”
“What’s happening now?” I continue after a moment’s silence.
“I can’t stand up any longer… I sort of drag myself to a chair… Feel that I am starting to panic… No-one is going to believe me… I vomit on the floor… ‘Oh for Christ’s sake!’ She yells… ‘Is that your conscience knocking.’ I hear her close by my ear… I’m ashamed… I’m so ashamed that I break down.”
He is sitting still while he is telling his story, sometimes with his head down. It’s cool in the room, almost cold, but he is sweating anyway.
(He was later cleared of all suspicions.)
I should in fact be critical of everything that the Other tells me. It can be tempting, in particular if the Other is someone that I have strong empathy with, someone I like or quite simply admire. An ‘ingratiating’ interview is generally a disservice to both the interviewer and the interviewee. Remaining critical doesn’t mean that I am suspicious of the Other; rather it means that I am interested in hearing ‘the truth’, and that which really means something to the Other… I am looking for clarity and depth.
How do I get access to the Other’s thoughts?
Even those with whom I don’t sympathise or whom I simply don’t like need support in telling their stories… genuine support. I am looking for something in them… I am looking for something that I honestly like or respect… a vulnerability, a driving force, courage, a smile. The more I dislike the person or what the person stands for, the more important it is for me to find in myself a feeling of goodwill towards them, however microscopic that might be… and to nurture that feeling during the interview, since it can be the key to the inside.
The smiling, round yellow face stared down at us from an otherwise empty wall. New Democracy (a former right-wing political party in Sweden for restricted immigration and economic reform) were going to move to bigger premises in Stockholm. It was during the period when that yellow face could be seen plastered up everywhere. The district chairman stood beside me and smiled up at that well-known face.
“Except for your moustache, you are quite alike,” I say to him.
He looks at me, his hand goes tentatively to his little moustache, he looks at the face on the wall and then starts to laugh… I like that laugh… Maybe we have the same sense of humour. So as it turned out, we liked each other – there in that bare white room – even thought in fact we didn’t. And the little guy on the wall got to hear the story of the district chairman’s hatred of Olof Palme, his disdain for drug addicts, and his economic criminality… and I still liked his laugh.
I am easy to see through. The Other can read me without any great difficulty. We know that we don’t like each other but if I am kindly disposed towards the Other, a trust can arise and the Other can open up. A kind of free zone is created in which we can meet each other.
Perhaps this is where I can make room for honest answers and go in deep?
…a kind of affinity… there in the moment… whoever I am meeting… democrat… non-democrat…
Listening only becomes meaningful if I do it sincerely, wholeheartedly. Sincerity means that I’m listening because I am really curious and care about what the Other has to say, not because it is assumed or expected of me that I should be.
A sympathetic attitude cannot be feigned, I cannot put it on. The Other must not look at me and see a lie. Because then no trust arises, no free zone, no getting to the heart of things… just hesitation, and a dead end.
Sometimes the Other can also find things in me that he or she can identify with, and which can provide unforeseen help.
A young neo-Nazi saw my silver rings. “Nice rings, they look old Scandinavian,” he says and looks at me with his pale blue eyes. Aha, I think to myself.
That became my entry into him. We had something in common, we both liked the rings.
Through listening, I get access to the world of the Other.