Elicited Chat: Chinwags with a Purpose

I can chat anytime, anywhere, with anyone. I am infamous for my chatting ability and inclination. I’ve written a little bit about my proclivity for chatting in an earlier blog (Movies, Wavers, & Client Love). The airplane is my favorite place to chat with people for the obvious reasons of boredom on long flights, the unwillingness of airlines these days to provide distractions (e.g., food, movies, flight crew with a sense of humor, etc.), and the absence of space to move any other part of your body but your mouth, which, at least, supports the activity of chatting.

This past week I was on a flight when my seatmate surprised me with my own opening gambit when he turned to me and asked, “Going away or going home?” I was stunned that a) he beat me to the question and b) he used nearly the exact question I use to start many fascinating conversations. Needless, to say, we chatted the entire flight. He had an entirely more fascinating life than my own – he is a movie director, had worked on many of my favorite films (including some in the Star Trek series and a movie with one of my favorite actresses, Jodie Foster). He was en route to begin shooting the remake of a very well-known movie series. However, we mostly chatted about the joys and challenges of launching our 20-something children. This kind of chatting is a lot of fun and it certainly passes the time in the most entertaining way when one does not have many other options.

I have come to realize, though, the value of chatting in relation to research. Chatting with a purpose, what I am now calling by the more scientific sounding name of elicited chat is a useful qualitative research strategy. An elicited chat is one that calls forth or draws out information in an informal act of talking in a familiar way with another person. To be clear, I am proposing elicited chat is different from elicited conversation, a more structured qualitative research strategy used in some other fields. Elicited conversation in these fields appears to refer to a conversation that is staged in order to gain research data. Elicited chat is differentiated by an even more informal interaction in which the researcher follows openings to collect data in the natural flow of the chat as the openings appear. Of course, before a researcher would engage in any data gathering activity, he or she needs to pay attention to the guidance of the appropriate Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure the ethical treatment of research participants. Assuming IRB approval, an elicited chat with research participants has the potential for mining some very useful qualitative research data in a less contrived way than traditional qualitative interviewing.

My journey to discovering for myself the value of elicited chatting began when I was doing my dissertation research on leaders of sexual health organizations using a constructivist grounded theory approach. Though I used a semi-structured qualitative interview process, I noticed that in nearly all of the interviews they changed into something different at some point. They stopped being formal interviews directed by my carefully constructed interview guide and became, instead, chats that were merely informed by the interview guide. When this change occurred, I could feel it and, presumably, so could the other person. The tone of our talk changed, the sense of connection changed, and the conversation grew warmer.  As a result, we became more open, more genuine, and more revealing with each other. I have no doubt my research participants shared things with me after the change that they would never have shared with me, if the change from an interview to an elicited chat had not occurred.  Before your imagination runs ahead of you, please remember we are talking about “elicited chats” not “illicit chats.”

There are several reasons why I believe elicited chats can be more effective in gathering rich data, in some situations, than interviewing.

  1. The concept of “chatting” connotes a level of informality that is lost when a research participant knows he or she is about to be interviewed. The informality creates a more relaxed environment and that can, in turn, result in more entry points in the talk to access the data being sought.
  2. While there is still a necessity for informed consent and some structure to assure confidentiality in an elicited chat, an elicited chat can be done in a way that is less contrived. It can be done in a variety of settings, even while doing other things, thus allowing the conversation to more naturally flow between the researcher and the participant.
  3. It is an approach that changes the power relationship between the researcher and the participant. They become two people in an interesting chat about something instead of being an “expert” trying to learn more from a “subject.” They are bound, in the moment, as two people by mutual curiosity and the joy of conversation.
  4. This bonding allows two people to communicate across socio-demographic (e.g., age, race, socio-economic position, etc.) and ideological barriers that might otherwise restrict their interaction.  Elicited chat, by virtue of the human connection it creates, can quickly facilitate a trust and confidence between two people.

Recently I wrote on the challenge of community engagement on issues that were perceived as being difficult to address (see Community Engagement and Touchy Topics). My experience of interviewing sexual health leaders, who represented a very wide spectrum of ideologies in the debate over comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only education, convinced me that an elicited chat has considerable value when trying to learn from another person who has a very different ideology than my own. When community issues being researched are less controversial, elicited chat can work well because it more closely resembles the informality and familiarity that characterizes how neighbors and members of the same community typically talk to one another.

As I have continued to think about elicited chat and become more convinced of its value, I am also considering several limitations to its use.  First, a researcher needs to be naturally curious about the topic and genuinely care about it. Chats are richest in those magic moments when both parties are connected with interest and sincerity. Secondly, a researcher needs to be a “people person.” The richest chats are between two people who enjoy connecting with others. For this reason, my seatmate and I started talking the moment we sat down in the plane and did not stop until we were walking off the plane together. Thirdly, at the risk of sounding ageist, elicited chat may work better for the more mature (e.g., older) researcher. The art of conversation requires a large frame of reference that may not yet be available to less mature (e.g., younger) researchers. Finally, a researcher needs to be comfortable with chatting as a complex, though informal, process. Chatting is a complex process in that it is often messy, by which I mean it has the properties of complexity – it is dynamic, entangled, emergent, and robust. (More about this in a future blog.)

I am continuing to think about the integration of my love of chatting with qualitative research.  I would be pleased if you would think about it with me and join the conversation.

More later…


Copyright 2014 by Thomas W. Klaus

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