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The Silent Probe

The most difficult technique to learn is the silent probe, which consists of just remaining quiet and waiting for an informant to continue. The silence may be accompanied by a nod or by a mumbled ‘‘uh-huh’’ as you focus on your note pad. The silent probe sometimes produces more information than does direct questioning. At least at the beginning of an interview, informants look to you for guidance as to whether or not they’re on the right track. They want to know whether they’re ‘‘giving you what you want.’’ Most of the time, especially in unstructured interviews, you want the informant to define the relevant information.

Some informants are more glib than others and require very little prodding to keep up the flow of information. Others are more reflective and take their time. Inexperienced interviewers tend to jump in with verbal probes as soon as an informant goes silent. Meanwhile, the informant may be just reflecting, gathering thoughts, and preparing to say something important. You can kill those moments (and there are a lot of them) with your interruptions.

Glibness can be a matter of cultural, not just personal style. Gordon Streib reports that he had to adjust his own interviewing style radically when he left New York City to study the Navajo in the 1950s (Streib 1952). Streib, a New Yorker himself, had done studies based on semistructured interviews with subway workers in New York. Those workers maintained a fast, hard-driving pace during the interviews—a pace with which Streib, as a member of the culture, was comfortable.

But that style was entirely inappropriate with the Navajo, who were uniformly more reflective than the subway workers (Streib, personal communication). In other words, the silent probe is sometimes not a ‘‘probe’’ at all; being quiet and waiting for an informant to continue may simply be appropriate cultural behavior.

On the other hand, the silent probe is a high-risk technique, which is why beginners avoid it. If an informant is genuinely at the end of a thought and you don’t provide further guidance, your silence can become awkward. You may even lose your credibility as an interviewer. The silent probe takes practice to use effectively. But it’s worth the effort.

 
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