BioPicBlues Jan here, writing to you from the sizzling Sierra foothills of California. It feels like a great time to retreat to a cool place and write . . . or venture out and engage in a strong interview.

Today I’m continuing my series on interviewing for writing. Handled professionally and well, interviewing can yield long-term relationships which impact both your writing and your marketing.

Looking at those moments of the interview, let’s talk about when the story gets difficult.

By difficult I mean that emotions begin to stir in the interviewee—sadness, pain, anger, or frustration. Will you be ready to shift and respond? You can be.

Three points to consider:

  • Maintain professionalism even when the story gets difficult, but offer appropriate compassion.
  • Encourage the interviewee to continue through listening cues, responses, and brief questions.
  • Be careful not to let your emotions get in the way of their telling of their story.In a previous post, Who You Are as Interviewer, I addressed who you are as you show up at the interview. Thinking that through carefully will help you when the story gets difficult and you need to balance professionalism and appropriate compassion.

    So when it does shift into an emotional place, what will you do? A few ideas:

    Ask one or two more questions to keep the interview going and to assess if the difficulty is momentary, is not momentary but is helpful for the interviewee to tell their story, or if you’ll need to go in a new direction with your questions.

    If you decide to go with the emotions and the story, assure the interviewee that he or she can talk freely and together you can decide what will be included for your writing purposes. Generally, we want to be able to use everything in the interview, but when it comes to getting to the heart of the story through the real and raw emotions, it doesn’t work if the interviewee feels that everything they say is fair game for you to use. Keep communicating.

    “Appropriate compassion” is partly achieved through an understanding response through your listening cues and responses. Inappropriate compassion is where you lose control of your emotions. We’ll talk about each of those next.

    Forward movement in an interview, coupled with appropriate compassion, is accomplished in part through your listening cues, responses, and brief questions. Show your genuine interest and concern through encouraging nods and expressions, verbal cues indicating that you’re listening, even natural body language such as turning toward the interviewee more or leaning forward slightly. Or you might find that leaning back for just a moment eases the intensity.

    Next is being careful not to let your emotions get in the way of their telling of their story. It’s good they know you care about the difficulty of the process, but joining them in their emotions could fall under “inappropriate compassion.”

    As I interviewed Jackie for Scars That Wound, Scars That Heal—A Journey Out of Self-Injury, there were many times I felt strong emotions. At times, yes, she saw tears in my eyes and I would assure her that I could see how difficult that time in her life was for her or how fresh it still seemed. During our interview times, however, I had to learn to be careful about the emotions I expressed. I wanted to keep her emotions as the focus as well as maintain the forward momentum of the interview. I would at times set aside my questions to let her to wander down different paths of her story not sure if they would end up being a part of the book. Sometimes they did.

    The best of difficult and deep interviewing will include some strong emotions. As interviewers we can be ready to shift and respond in a way that benefits both the interview and the interviewee.

    Others in the summer interview series:

    Deeper into the Interview – when God might have more in mind for both of you than just getting the story down.

    Who You Are as Interviewer – It matters who you are in the presence of another one of God’s created human  beings


    Jan writes nonfiction from her home in the foothills of the California Sierras. She is currently working on more material for the teen/ya audience and for those who deeply care about them. She also enjoys life coaching and mentoring writers. Visit her site at

2 thoughts on “Interviewing When the Story Gets DIfficult

black expressions books

July 30, 2010 - 18 : 32 : 38

Thanks for the tip here. I do get snags in character development once in a while!

Jan Kern

August 9, 2010 - 22 : 38 : 37

You’re welcome. Those snags seem to be a regular part of the writing life, I think. Otherwise we aren’t writing enough or going deep enough!
Keep enjoying the process!

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