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Civic Dictionary

Discovering Self-Interest

One-On-One Interviews

Excerpted from “Reinventing Citizenship: The Practice of Public Work,” by the staff and partners of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, p. 64. Copyright © 1995 by Minnesota Extension Service and Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota “Making the Rules: A Public Achievement Guidebook,” 3rd ed, by Melissa Bass, p. 54. Copyright © 1994 by Project Public Life. Self-interest grows out of the diversity and fluidity of public life. It brings people to the public world. Self-interest is one’s motivations, background, hopes; it’s what matters to someone. Self-interest locates the individual within their histories, families, beliefs, and practices. In a particular problem-solving context, it is your connection to the problem and your reason for working with diverse others to solve it. The concept of everyone having an interest sounds simple, but it’s difficult to practice because it means coming to recognize that others don’t have your self-interest as their first concern, that their self-interest is probably different from yours, and that their and your self-interests will change over time. You can discover other people’s self-interests by informally listening to and watching them. Think about what they say and how they say it; what their body language says; what they are willing to do; what engages or bores them. Discovering other people’s interests happens in stages. You may watch a person first to gauge her or his interests, or you may be referred by someone else who knows the individual’s interests well. Once you have decided that person might be useful to the problem-solving work you are doing, you will want to find out more about them and to engage them in the work.


Interviewing, or doing a one-on-one is another, more formal way of finding out their interests. One-on-ones happen in the context of problem-solving: the problem is your reason for your interest in the other person, and you want to find out her or his interest in relationship to that problem. The interview is guided by that larger purpose; it is not haphazard. Interviewing is a way to gain information about the problem (problem definition), about the culture and power surrounding the problem (power mapping), and about potential leaders and strategies for addressing the problem. With some people you may only do one interview. Others—like potential leaders—might require several meetings to engage their interests in the work. The key to interviewing is to listen. You are there to find out what that person knows about the problem, how much, and why they care about it, whether they would be useful or interested in providing leadership around a problem-solving effort. Tips for Interviewing

  • Ask direct questions
    Direct questions will encourage the speaker to tell you what is most important to her or him.
  • Avoid asking “yes or no” questions
    These types of questions can be answered too quickly and the answers may not tell you very much
  • Don’t dominate
    While you want to be clear about your interests, you do not want to dominate the conversation.
  • Listen
    Build on what your interviewee has already said. This involves paying attention to what has been said. Actually, an interviewee who feels “listened to” is likely to say more than someone who feels ignored.
  • Check that you understand
    Clarify what the speaker is saying by restating what you have heard and asking if you have it right.
  • Keep it public
    Interviewing to discover self-interest is a good exercise in finding out where public information ends and private information begins. Of course, the boundaries are different for everyone. If you ask a question that is too personal, your interviewee will probably tell you. Don’t push it.
  • Keep it short
    Your interviews should not be marathon sessions, perhaps only 20 – 30 minutes to start. Set up a second, or third, interview if necessary.
  • Follow up
    Because self-interests change over time, be sure to check back with your interviewee from time to time.

By using information from interviews and other sources, you can assess the power relationships and the political cultures of the environments in which you are working.


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