Interviewing as mentoring: my evolving understanding of sensemaking
Sensemaking is about how people muddle through, working things out as they go along, to move forward as best they can. It's a theory that rejects the idea that people make decisions in some kind of context-free way. Sensemaking is also not the same as a 'journey' because when people are sensemaking the path they are on is not linear and in some cases does not even have a start point, nor an end point
Sensemaking for commercial qual research
Sensemaking theory has been applied extensively and productively for several decades in management consulting and information science. I came across it in 2016 and have been writing about and working with sensemaking ideas since then trying to develop a model that suited commercial qualitative research and the kinds of problems for which we receive briefs. Over the last few years, I have experimented with different models and ways of explaining the theory. My understanding of sensemaking has evolved as I have worked with its core ideas, just as sensemaking theory predicts.
Where I am up to now is developing an interviewing method in which sensemaking becomes the lens through which we can see the context and the priorities of an interviewee, without constraining or formulising their thinking, thereby allowing the fluid and evolving nature of their choices to emerge.
Sensemaking and interviewing as mentoring
While working on our 'Retirement planning' project, Suzanne Burdon and I created a non-linear interview format that allows the person we are interviewing to describe and define in their own words the breadth of the world that they are experiencing. Our aim is to reveal the mental framework the person is using to make sense of their world. This framework is full of assumptions and presumptions and may not be static or have a linear structure. Most importantly our framework as researchers is also full of assumptions and presumptions - for example we might assume that someone who is over 60 and who has not retired is a 'pre-retiree'. To do this would be a huge mistake as our conversations with participants for this project have confirmed. A 'maybe retiree' is perhaps closer to the mark and reflects better the fluid nature of the process.
A lesson from sensemaking: to expose the assumptions and presumptions of other people we must jettison our own. To do that, we have to jettison the traditional 'topic guide' which in turn means letting go of the traditional role of the interviewer as the person in command of the conversation.
We see our role as mentors, helping the person we are speaking to see the 'frame' they are using when they talk and think about this particular issue or problem. In our retirement example, are they seeing it as a question of identity - for example thinking of themselves as too young to retire? Are they seeing it as a social problem, trying to manage relationships with an already-retired partner, or with still-working friends? Has it more to do with employment opportunities than with either of these? How are they making sense of all these different aspects of their life situation, how do they interact, how do they prioritise them, and how in particular do they make sense of the ways in which they might change?
This method of mentoring people towards sensemaking can be used for a wide range of products and services. The more of these mentoring conversations of this kind that we have, the more we are convinced that it is a way to see more clearly exactly how people ‘muddle through’ and work things out (even though that might seem an oxymoron).