The power of a conversation...

Using ethnography to capture the essence.

Photo of Dawn Boland
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When working with students, it becomes more obvious that authentic conversations are the means to true understanding. So much information can be gleaned when you make the time to sit down, face to face to understand. We all have initial reactions to snakes, but how is it that some people have good, calm reactions whilst others can be can be fearful and need to leave the room? It is only when we ask others about their reactions that we can begin to understand perspectives.

For students, we can look at this problem from a variety of perspectives, physical reactions e.g. skin temperature and heart rate, psychological e.g. brain activity and emotional reactions. David Brooks in his book 'The Social Animal' also discusses the idea that we cannot just describe the fish but we also need to understand and describe the ocean that the fish is swimming in. Therefore, the interview can also give us great insight into the environment around the person.

Interviewing harnesses many skills, formulation of thorough questions, utilization of technology to record, data recording and then interpretation.

From a simple picture, interviews and understanding a new world of design unfolds. How might we create an environment or strategies where people can address their fears about snakes? Or, How might we create a device that controls fear for humans to wear?

So when I interviewed a colleague about the use of interviews in STEM, above is the summary of our conversation.

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research.

Formulation of good questions that glean the right information are important.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chris Good

Dawn I love this take on the power of interviews and eliciting stories to gain empathy.

I wonder what kinds of activities we can engage students in to make them expert interviewers?

More importantly I also wonder how we might make them expert listeners?

Asking great questions is only powerful if we are open to receiving the amazing stories, insights, ideas, and emotions within them!

Photo of Dawn Boland

Thank you Chris, Your last statement rings so true with me and brings me to my favourite quote by Stephen Covey, he states, 'do we listen with the intent to reply or do we listen with the intent to understand?'

Photo of Chris Good

That is an awesome quote!  I am so guilty of the former!!!! ;-(

Photo of Dawn Boland

Thank you so much to everyone who posted to my reflection. I guess I am coming back to those 'soft skills' that are so often reflected upon by such publishers as the Harvard Business Review and the like. Communication, learning and above all understanding are what promote great creativity, innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving.

Photo of Erin Quinn

This is such a great idea. I've never thought of having students do an ethnography. I think this fits really well with the Interview for Empathy ( and Observe with Empathy ( methods. 

I think the idea of doing a scan of the fish AND the water is a brilliant analogy.

Photo of Michael Schurr

Dawn, this post is awesome! An interview about the power of interviews, so meta! It would be great to get a transcript of that interview.  What kinds of questions did you ask to elicit responses? It would be great to dig into the types of questions you are asking.

Have you ever hear of Warren Berger's book, "A More Beautiful Question,"?

Check out the link:

He speaks to many of your points in your post.

Look forward to digging into this with you!

Photo of Lisa Yokana

This is great! And absolutely empathy interviews belong in STEM. Understanding how students and educators feel is hugely important in crafting experiences that are authentic and relevant for our students. Thank you for sharing this. Can't wait to see what you post in the Ideate phase!
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