Paraphrasing in Qualitative Interviews
Some people assume that qualitative interviewing is an easy job that almost anyone can do. But that’s not quite true.
Conducting and interpreting qualitative interviews would be easy if our interviewees always provided well-thought-through ideas, and explained those ideas using clear, simple language. But with many people, we have to help them help us understand them.
In other words, the burden of producing accurate information, though shared by both conversation partners, lies heavier on the interviewer. That’s where paraphrasing can be helpful.
Paraphrasing, or restating what we thought we heard the interviewee say while watching for their reaction, gives us a sense of how close our understanding of their words comes to what they really wanted to convey. It’s a form of active listening, and is one of the best techniques we can use to clarify and maximize the accuracy of the information we collect.
Not “In Your Own Words”
I used to think that paraphrasing meant merely repeating back what I heard in my own words. It’s how most sources define paraphrasing and it’s what we’ve all learned from teachers trying to keep us from plagiarizing the source of our inspiration—“just put it in your own words.”
I’ve since come to understand that paraphrasing is actually more complex than that. Simply restating something in our own words doesn’t necessarily mean we enhance our understanding of what the interviewee is trying to convey.
Here’s why. If we just repeat back what we hear in our own words, then all we do is shift the meaning from the interviewee’s meaning to our own. In essence, we are asking the interviewee if “our words” make sense to “them.” Instead, we should be asking if “their words” make sense to “us.” The difference is subtle but important, and has to do with matching our meaning space to that of our interviewees.
Meaning space is that place in which both interviewer and the interviewee have a very similar interpretation of the concept the interviewee is trying to convey. According to Dr. Richard Halley, “Your choice of words in a paraphrase should be guided by your guess as to how much ‘meaning space’ your word shares with the speaker’s word.”
As interviewer, our job is to guess the word or phrase that has a meaning space similar to the interviewee’s words. The more the interviewee struggles to express themself, the more important it is to identify words that reside in that shared meaning space.
Paraphrasing is certainly not about trying to find a “better” or cleverer way of saying something. In fact, the best words may be less articulate or precise than words used outside of the meaning space shared with the interviewee. They may instead be words spoken by the interviewee earlier in the interview, words that most people would recognize the meaning of, a metaphor that captures the shared meaning, or words that the interviewee is clearly groping for—those tip of the tongue words that may be hard to bring to mind under the pressure of an interview.
Learning to become a good paraphraser takes practice. It also helps to have a few strategies you can draw on until you develop some of your own. Here are seven paraphrasing tactics I’ve developed and have had success with in my own qualitative work:
1. Connect the dots. Sometimes people leave out a key link in their answer to your question. On the surface, it may not make sense unless you can connect the dots like I did with this gentleman:
As I’ve said, paraphrasing takes practice. It’s not an exact science and actually depends on a bit of intuition. Practicing in conversations with people you trust will make you more of a natural at it. I’ve also found that if you just make the effort, most interviewees will correct you when necessary and do what they can to get through to you. Let them be your best teachers!