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3. Learning from Developing Group Day

Dear Stefan,

We spent the whole of Saturday 5th August simulating the interview stage of the Minewater Project.

Below is a copy of the brief we gave the 'Interviewers' (Proposed Method for Semi-Structured Interviews using Symbolic Modelling).  The whole group had the pre-day reading which you have already seen.

In the morning seven participants took on the role of being interviewed with the assumption that the MWP was being implemented in their locality.  In the afternoon a different seven were interviewed.

The overall learning from the day is that Symbolic Modelling can be very effective in an interview setting such as that proposed by the Minewater Project.  Using Symbolic Modelling (Clean Language, metaphor and modelling) adds an extra dimension to the interview process compared to using Clean Language alone.  The benefit is the broader range of information obtained, but it comes at the price of increasing complexity and skill required by the interviewer.

Below are the key points that came out of the day.

Our very best regards to you and your family,

James and Penny
13 August 2006


Some of the learning to come out of the day:


- It is very important to set-up and the initial introductions of interviewer and interviewee.  Although the interviewees were in role play, they reported that they could not relax into answering questions until the purpose and protocols of the interview had been fully discussed, including addressing any concerns the interviewee may have.

- Many of the interviewers said they felt the need to start with very simple questions that could easily be answered, rather than dive in with 'What would you like to have happen?'.  

- Some interviewers who had a nice informal chatty start had some difficulty in moving the interview on to more specific topics.

- Some suggested that rather than you defining the starting point you could say something like "You've read the briefing, what stands out for you about what you've read?"


- The interviews lasted for an hour and many of the groups reported this was not enough time to cover such a wide range of topics, so that either the scope needs to be limited or a second interview would be required.

- We realise you may interview for up to 1.5 hours which would help.  However a few of the interviewees who were role playing older people felt that even an hour was quite a long time and that they would feel tired at the end of the interview because of the kinds of questions being asked.


- Generally the interviewers were able to gather high-quality information about the topics.  But even though they were experienced Symbolic Modellers they struggled to develop metaphors when interviewing in a conversational mode. This seemed to be about (a) the potential for breaking the rapport that had been so carefully established; (b) the resistance/reluctance the facilitator felt at changing from an ordinary conversation to something metaphorical; (c) the need to keep in mind that developing metaphors is part of the interviewer's desired outcome.

- Where metaphors were identified, interviewers were unclear about how far to develop the metaphor.  Do you have an idea of how much of a metaphoric description you need?  (We suggested to the group that a metaphor has enough of an existence when you can refer to it throughout the interview,)

- We observed that metaphors in ordinary conversation have a very short half life.  That is, if you don't refer to them immediately, the moment passes very quickly.  Also the interviewer has to be very attentive to his/her questions to increase the chances of getting an answer in metaphor.  If the question offers the interviewee the slightest chance of returning to the conceptual, they will, e.g.
     Interviewee: "We need to build a bridge between the generations."
     Interviewer:  " What's important about building a bridge between the generations?"
     Interviewee: "Our youth are leaving the community."
The interviewer would have had much more chance of developing the metaphor if they had asked:
     Interviewer: "And what kind of bridge is the bridge we need to build?"

-  To encourage the interviewee to stay with a metaphor took some persistence by the interviewer and a determination to return to the metaphor even if the interviewee gave conceptual answers.  Eventually the interviewee began to 'get it' and answer from the metaphor.

- If an interviewee did not naturally respond to developing questions about a metaphor, then it was suggested that you make your request for a metaphor overt, explaining what a metaphor is if necessary.

-  Even though the interviewers knew that sometimes the interviewees were making up the answers, they still had a tendency to get lost in the story and had to stay alert to those metaphors which were being used unconsciously by the interviewee.  They also had to keep track of whether the interviewee had answered the particular question asked, no matter how interesting the story.

- You are going to get a mixture of sensory, conceptual and symbolic information.  The interviewer needs to decide how much of each type of information they want.  And it is particularly valuable when links between all three can be established.  Also to remember that an example which sounds sensory and superficial can also be symbolic.


- We noted that you will need to be clear about how you are going to handle questions from the interviewee.  If they start asking you about the project, how much will you answer?  One suggestion was that you tell the interviewee you will answer their questions at the end.  (But you would need to plan time to do this.)

- Even though it was role play, several interviewees accessed quite deep emotional states and suggested you have a plan of how to handle such a situation, and potentially what to do if they need further support.

- A strong message from the groups was that you will need to prioritise the information you require so that the most important questions get asked, and if you run out of time it is the less important information that is missed.


- Some suggestions of questions you might consider:

  Do you have experience of anything like this project happening before?
  (As well as What would you like to have happen?) And what would you like not to happen?
  (At the beginning) What would you like this interview to be like?
  (Or at the end) What was this interview like?

-  A simple question to get sensory question information is "And can you give me an example of ...".  

- The use of 'When...' is still important for helping to set the context for the question, even during a conversational interview.


- Unless the interviewer is aware that to a large degree the answers they are getting are a direct consequence of the questions they ask, then they may think that if they are do not get the information they require, it is the fault of the interviewee. (Rather than where and how they are directing the interviewee's attention.)

- When an interviewee had a tendency to describe a very wide range of experiences, sometimes moving from one to another without a pause, the interviewer had to be very clear about their outcome for the interview so they could pick out  the relevant bits from all of the interviewee's responses.

- When the interviewer asks the 'Like what?' question of is vital.  Generally asking 'Like what?' of something that exists physically gets a look of confusion.  Also asking 'Like what?' of a highly abstract concept does not work well either.  What did work was asking 'Like what?' when the interviewee couldn't easily find an ordinary answer.

 - The interviewer needs to take into account the verbosity of the interviewee.  Sometimes just repeating back a few words was enough to prompt the interviewee to launch into another monologue.  This is fine if they are giving relevant information.  But if they are not or they are repeating themselves the interviewer needs to take more charge of the interview by asking more directed questions and even respectfully interrupting.

Proposed Method for Semi-Structured Interviews using Symbolic Modelling

1. Ask a question to get the interviewee’s attention on a relevant topic  (CONTEXT).

2. Clean Language questions to develop and expand that information.

3. And to pick up on metaphors/symbols:
If a metaphor is not forthcoming, to ask for one and develop that.

4. Then, either naturally slide into another topic (on the list).
Or, direct attention to another topic when you have enough information.

5. If go outside the context, direct attention back to one of the topics.
Notes for Interviewer

Keep the interview conversational.
Whenever possible:
  • keep asking ‘Is there anything else about...’.
  • Identify what role the person is taking to answer the question, e.g. parent, potential consumer, local tradesperson, local representative,  ex-miner, etc. (PERCEIVER)
  • Elicit symbols - physical and imaginative.  (PERCEIVED)
  • Explore RELATIONSHIP between symbols of the mind and physical symbols in the locality.
  • Elicit RELATIONSHIP between the person and project implementation, aim/plan, personnel, etc.
Notes for Observer
  • Take down questions exactly.
  • Take down brief notes or just the kind of answer given.
  • Ask for a time-out if interviews goes outside the remit of the exercise.


  • Where do you live = town.
  • How long have you (your family) lived in [town]?
  • What is, or has been, your job?
  • What do you think about the physical environment of [town] as a place to live?
  • How would you sum up your local community?
  • What local building or monument most sums up your town or it’s people,
  • and why?
  • What is important to you about living in [town]?
  • Since you’ve lived in [town], what changes have you noticed?
  • How have these affected the local people?
  • What has been important to you personally about those changes?
  • What are your hopes/aspirations for your town and the people in it?
  • What would you most like to have happen locally?
  • What would need to happen for [answer to previous question]?
  • What does ‘ecological’ mean to you?
  • What is your opinion of what’s happening to the local environment?
  • Do you have any experience of community environmental projects? [eg recycling]
  • How have you been involved in these projects?
  • What do you think of them?
  • Have you done anything personally to be more environmentally friendly?
  • What do you know about the Minewater Project?
  • Is there anything else you would like to know about the Minewater Project?
  • What do you think people in this town generally think about the MWP?
  • Who do you think is organising the project?
  • What, if any, contact have you had with the project organisers? 
  • What is your opinion of how the project has been organised so far?
  • Do you think it is viable for the mine water to be used as a source of energy for
  • heating and cooling the town’s houses and offices?
  • If the MWP is fully implemented, what effect will that have on the town?
  • Is there anything you would like to see happen in relation to the MWP?
  • How would you like other ex-mine working communities to view the project?
  • Are you interested in finding out about the progress of the project? 
  • (If ‘yes’) How would you like the organisers to keep you informed?
  • Is there anything you’d like to ask me before we finish?

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