Tell Me Your Story – Conducting Interviews On Sensitive Topics

I can’t guess how many interviews I’ve done in the last year…lots. I’ve interviewed a wide variety of people from singers, writers, cops, drug addicts, alcoholics, drug dealers, prostitutes, convicts and gang thugs to pastors, missionaries, chaplains, and the list goes on.

What do you need to know to get a great interview without burning bridges?

It should go without saying that basic interview skills are essential.

Do your research. Find out everything you can about them. Google your subject, read their online bio, listen to their music, read their book. Have a basic understanding of where this person has been and what they’re about. There’s no point in wasting everyone’s time by asking questions they’ve already answered in a public bio.

Prepare for the interview ahead of time. Know what information you need and the questions you’ll ask to get that information. Different writers have different methods, but I like to send a few questions ahead of the interview by email. It helps me to focus on where I need the interview to go, and it gives the interviewee a chance to think through their answers. The more prepared you are, the more at ease the person you’re interviewing will be.

Listen and interact. By employing active listening techniques, you’ll appear professional and interested. If you don’t know what active listening is, look it up. It’s important!

When I’m interviewing someone on a topic that’s sensitive in nature, there are a few extra considerations. These kinds of interviews are not for the faint of heart.

Find out whether talking with you puts them in any danger or difficult situations. Many times, I’ve interviewed people who can’t have their names appear in the media—maybe they were a drug addict and still owe people money, or they’re talking about an experience in their past that would embarrass their family or jeopardize their employment. Be sensitive to the fact that they’re taking a risk by talking to you. Make sure you inform them if the article will be available online. Always be up front with your editor if you know you won’t be able to print the person’s name, and why.

I’ve interviewed people with some pretty fantastic stories, and by fantastic I mean hard to believe. Do your best to verify their story whenever possible. Ask them for the names and contact information of people who can corroborate parts of their story, or who know them very well. Whether you, or your editor, follows up with these people is a bridge to be crossed later, but if they are unwilling or unable to give you the name of anyone who can verify their story, be cautious.

Ask the hard questions, and be prepared for the answers. This is not the time to be shy or embarrassed about tough situations or circumstances. I’ve had interviews with men who’ve shared about abusing women. I’ve had fathers sob talking about the children they haven’t seen in years. A friend conducted an interview where a woman shared about being duct-taped to a chair and set on fire by her boyfriend. If they’ve found the courage to share the story with you, at least have the guts to listen to it. They may share about a situation that makes you want to scream, or run away. But you can’t.

These interviews will be emotionally taxing on the person sharing their story, but you are not a heartless beast for asking the important why and how questions. Your job is to dig beneath the surface. But have compassion, there may be some things that people just can’t talk about, and you need to let them know that’s okay. Be aware of your own personal boundaries also. For example, when someone shares that they were a prostitute, that statement is sufficient for my imagination. I don’t need, or want, to know all the sordid details (and I’ve never had an editor who wanted those details either).

Don’t take it personally if they are suspicious or cautious around you. Sometimes people share with me about things they don’t want to appear in a magazine or newspaper. In those instances, I will offer to let the person see my notes (not the story I submit, but the notes I work from to write the story). I want people to walk away from an interview with me confident that I’ve captured their story authentically and will respect their boundaries.

Lastly, sometimes their story changes. This can happen in one interview, but more often it happens when you require two or more interviews to capture the whole story. I don’t know exactly why, I can’t know their minds, but it happens often enough to be worth mentioning. You may ask to revisit a particular instance or event and it seems that their story has changed. They may skip over events explored in detail before and vice versa. People can change their mind about what they do and don’t want to share, it doesn’t mean they’re lying. Depending on the person’s experiences, their memory may not be entirely trustworthy; I’ve found this to be particularly true of long-time drug addicts. Always clarify if there seems to be a contradiction. In the end, err on the side of caution. If there are serious unexplained inconsistencies in their story, you may not be able to use the interview.

I hope this helps. Happy interviewing! We’d love to hear your feedback, or answer your questions.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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