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Interviewing for Dummies: 5 Tips for Sensitive Interviews

So you’ve got the basics and you know how to get great quotes every time, now let’s take the stakes a little higher. Suppose you are writing a story about a crime, act of violence, or scandal.

You’re right to think that quotes will be essential to any story of that nature, but you’re also right in assuming that getting people to talk about sensitive subjects can be tricky. Here are some tips for handling an interview regarding any sticky situation:

distraught interviewee

Show compassion toward a distraught interviewee.

Be a decent human first, and a reporter second. Whether someone witnessed a crime, has been victimized by bullies, or has suffered a loss, compassion is key in this interview process. It is okay for you to say something like “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “I’m sure this is difficult to talk about.” If you know your interviewee will be upset, bring some spare tissues in addition to your tape recorder and notebook. Showing your interviewee that you understand they are struggling and you’re not just a stickler reporter looking for a quote will allow them to relax. If and when they do decide to open up to you, make sure that you are actively listening to what they have to say.

Keep your cool. In any high-stress situation, your interviewee will be on edge. Whether they get defensive or burst into tears you will have to be able to remain calm in order to follow through with the interview. Part of being a good journalist means having thick skin.(Don’t worry, your skin will get thicker with practice.) You can’t allow your emotions to get the best of you. If your interviewee gets heated, allow them time to cool down and regain composure. Reassure them that it’s okay for them to take their time.

Check and double-check your prepared questions. When preparing for this kind of interview it is crucial to pay extremely close attention to the way you phrase your questions. You are going to want to treat someone who has experienced a loss or been the victim of a crime with respect, and handle their situation delicately. After you write your list of questions read through them a few times to make sure that none of them have any potential to offend.

Talk to the hand

Prevent getting the “Talk to the hand!”

Take baby steps. There is no need to start with the most hard-hitting questions on your list. Start off nice and easy. Ask about small details first, and work your way up to the more difficult questions. If you ease the interviewee into the process they will feel more comfortable with you, and be more willing to open up when the time comes.

Expect the unexpected. In this interview more than ever you will need to be able to think on your toes. You never know how your interviewee will respond to your questions. Maybe they will completely lock up and not reveal much at all, or maybe you won’t be able to get a word in edge-wise. It will be essential for you to roll with the punches. Go with the flow – and even more importantly, go with your gut. If you sense that your subject is getting worked up, pump the brakes a little to prevent them from completely shutting down your interview.

An interview of this caliber may seem like an impossible feat at first, but with enough practice you will learn which methods work best for you and you’ll be a seasoned professional in no time!

What do you think? Do you have any other tips to add? Now that you’ve reached the end of this series, is there anything else you’re still dying to know?


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  1. Jaimie Smith

    These are some awesome tips, Jenna!! It is definitely important to show compassion in an interview like this. I probably would not be very good at an interview like this, though. I am definitely one who would let my emotions get the best of me!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Jaimie! Interviews like this are definitely tough, and they take a lot of practice!

  2. Jen

    These are great tips Jenna. I never know what to say to people when they’re upset, let alone interview them. If I ever have to, however, I will use your tips for sure!

    • Jenna Markowski

      It’s hard to figure out the right words to say sometimes, which is why it’s best to check and re-check your prepared questions! This kind of interview takes a lot of thought and preparation beforehand. Thanks, Jen!

  3. Cybernetic SAM

    I have been in this situation before (and I am a bleeding heart), and sometimes I let that get the best of me. But at the end of the day, you can’t let a sob story be key to your decision, no matter how hard it may be. It really is an awful feeling. Great tips though!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Exactly. Even though it can be really tough, someone has to hold down the fort and keep the interview from falling apart at the seams. Compassion is key here, though. Just because you need to stay composed, doesn’t mean you should be cold or rush the interview along. It’s crucial to let the interviewee know that it’s okay if they’re upset and to go at whatever pace they are comfortable with. It really is a delicate balance. Thanks, Sam!

  4. Amy Swanson

    Your tips here are excellent and they sound spot-on. I can’t imagine having to interview someone in a circumstance like this. Great job explaining what exactly to do, Jenna!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thanks, Amy! It’s pretty tough, but with the right knowledge and enough practice it gets a little easier. Hopefully now if you’re ever in this situation you’ll know what to do!

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    Great tips as always, Jenna! I’ve (fortunately) steered clear of sensitive interviews in the past, but I imagine that I’ll have to conduct one some day. When that day comes, I will be prepared!

    • Jenna Markowski

      Thank you, Mandy! I haven’t had to do too many myself, either. But I’ve had enough training in the field that I’m ready when the time comes! Now you will be, too! 🙂

  6. Rachel

    Great point about making sure your questions are worded correctly — wouldn’t want to offend someone, no matter if it’s a sensitive interview or not! Thanks for this whole interview series, Jenna; it’s been very informative, and I’m sure a lot of budding interviewers appreciate all these tips and tricks. 🙂

    • Jenna Markowski

      Good point, Rachel! Checking and double-checking your wording on questions is important all of the time, not just when it’s a sensitive subject. I’m glad you liked the series! I sure hope they do! 🙂

  7. Jill Tooley

    You’re such an interviewing expert, Jenna! This “for Dummies” series has been incredibly helpful. 🙂

    All of the points you made are valid, of course, but “taking baby steps” is one of the most crucial to remember. Interviewers must ease into the process rather than spring a zillion questions on an upset interviewee! There’s a certain level of trust that goes along with it. If the guest thinks the interviewer is being insensitive, then the whole thing is as good as over!

  8. Eric

    Even if you aren’t, it never hurts to take the side of the person you’re interviewing, or – at the very least – give them the impression they’re not being judged for their responses or behavior. You can quickly make an interview into an argument straying from this advice. Smart stuff, Jenna. If only more of those television folk could abide by it!

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