Interviewing On Sensitive Topics

05 Jul 2019 | Research & Business Knowledge

Fiona Silver has kindly summarised the advice she received on interviewing potentially vulnerable people on a highly sensitive (not to say emotional) topic for the future reference of anyone with a similar query.


Reassuringly, there were several examples of successful projects in sensitive areas similar to the one I described.  Generally people found that respondents were happy to contribute for a worthwhile cause even if the subject was difficult for them personally.  However, there exists the possibility of problems and so the following steps were suggested:

Is it Necessary?

  • Consider whether the information could be found in another way e.g. through a moderated internal workshop
  • Be clear how the information will be actively used and communicate this to respondents.  Many people mentioned that helping others in a similar situation was a strong motivating factor towards participation

Good Preparation

  • Both the researcher and client organisation could conduct a risk assessment to identify which question areas may present a problem and how any problems should be addressed
  • Identify if any people should automatically be excluded from the sample on safeguarding grounds
  • Involve people from the client organisation with relevant experience
  • Conduct a pilot


  • Be very clear at recruitment about the subject area and the types of questions you will be asking
  • Reinforce their right to withdraw at any time
  • Clarify confidentiality


  • Use an empathetic and non-judgemental manner with unconditional positive regard
  • Take the interview at an unhurried pace.  Allow respondents time to pause and gather their thoughts
  • Let respondents skip questions; they may voluntarily return to them later.  Set client expectations that some respondents may not answer all questions
  • Consider online forums using a mix of private and public discussions – people like to ‘meet’ others in a similar situation. Phone interviews also give respondents a bit more ‘cover’ and the opportunity to break or defer an interview more easily
  • Allow time at the end to check how they feel about what they have expressed


  • Give details of relevant support organisations or a counsellor to respondents
  • Consider including a statement in the consent to interview that states that if you feel you have heard something which means that they or people around them are in danger of harm that you can refer it to the charity and/or relevant professional
  • Consider whether you as an interviewer may need support as a result of what you have heard.