Deep sensing interviews are a powerful tool. In the times I’ve used them I’ve seen them help deepen relationships, deepen a field of inquiry, shift the shape of a team, organization or system.
Deep sensing interviews are one of the tools highlighted in the Sensing phase of Theory U, where we begin to see how we see the world. Once we become aware of our seeing, then we have the opportunity to focus our attention in more intentional ways.
The beauty of a deep sensing interview, when it is designed well, is that it takes the interviewee on a tangential or divergent journey to where you want to go which is usually the current situation you are wanting to inquire into. When we take the direct route to where we want to go, we often get the first off-the-top of the head responses which also often are the responses aligned with role or positon in the team, organization or system. It can be a good, helpful reflection and, often so much more is possible.
Deep sensing interviews take people out of their heads and invite them to embody the conversation or enquiry which takes them to a different place, allowing them to see their own experience and their own questions in new light. They also help to build trust which is advantageous if you are embarking on any initiative requiring trust, openness and alignment.
It was through the four year Collaborative Care initiative, championed by the College of Registered Nurse of NS that I was first introduced to deep sensing interviews. Phil Cass, who was on the hosting team with us, spoke about the impact in Columbus, Ohio. In health care work there designed to shift the system, they discovered, through sensing interviews, that the people interviewed seemed to have a public voice and a private voice. The public voice was the one that came from their role or position and provided ideas or suggestions from that official voice. It was often also the voice looking to someone else to “fix” the problems. The private voice was the one that tapped into both despair and hope, the embodiment of the conversation, the knowing that if change is really going to happen, it is going to happen through people and relationships first, then systems and that they just might have a role to play.
Phil’s experience with deep sensing interviews inspired us to use them too, but not without some trepidation at the start. The structure of these interviews is a bit different and they take time – a good hour and sometimes more – which feels like a lot of time to ask of someone – especially someone busy, especially someone “high up” in a system or organization, especially since it doesn’t dive right into the information you’re after but takes the time to build the field of inquiry. Now, however, having seen the impact and quality of response, it is an intentional strategy to draw upon when, of course, it serves the purpose of the work underway.
There are four key phases to a deep sensing interview. They are:
- what was your path to here
- why here, why now
- what is here – issues and challenges that have led to this inquiry
- imagining the future
Path to Here
I will tell people before we begin that this interview will start in a very different place, because I want to get to know them, because I want us to see connections across a journey. The questions will be about where they grew up, what it was like to grow up there, what they wanted to be when they grew up, what did they do after high school, how they found their way there, what excited them, what they were passionate about. These are not diversionary questions. They are questions that help people reconnect with themselves, their dreams, their essence.
Why Here, Why Now?
What is their job now? How did they get to this job? What did they aspire to when they began this job? What keeps them going on the difficult days or in the challenging times? Why here, why now?
What’s Here Now?
This series of questions is intended to get at the issues and challenges – in the team, organization or system – that sparked the inquiry or the work. Why are we here? What is the need? What is their role in this? What could it be? What are the barriers? What else gets in the way? What conversations are not happening? What are the costs – financial, human, other? What is the trajectory if nothing changes – how much worse could it get? What would that cost?
Imagining the Future
Imagining the future – these are the questions to inspire what’s possible. What one conversation, that’s not happening now, that if it did happen, could change everything? Who would be in that conversation? What/who are your systems of influence? What are we not seeing, that if we could see it, would allow us shift the shape of our experience? What would an ideal future look like? What would it take to move us in that direction?
The questions floated here are not the “right” questions, or the “exact” questions. To be powerful, the questions need to be crafted to the purpose and intention of the work. Testing them improves them. Leading people through a deep sensing interview invites them into a mindful reflection where just the asking of the questions begins to open up new possibilities.
Sometimes in the interview it is tempting to assume someone has already answered a question. I will often say to someone, you may have already answered this, but I’m going to ask it anyway. It is amazing what more turns up when you ask the question – something completely different sometimes, often a new level of reflection and depth.
I have used deep sensing interviews in systems work, in organizational work and with teams - particularly teams that are experiencing challenges in the moment. Looking for themes and patterns across the interviews is a powerful tool for building momentum in the work. We have, at times, reflected back the “voices” with direct quotes. At other times, especially for teams, the themes and patterns have been mind mapped. It is extraordinary how people begin to see things they could not see before, how illuminating themes and patterns provides a base for shifting to more of what’s working. How people begin to recognize that their themes and patterns are collective - my story is also your story. What a surprise it is to individuals when they begin to see this.
Deep sensing interviews. A powerful tool when well crafted and clearly intended.