The Role of Unstructured Interviews

Week 3: The Role of Unstructured Interviews

Imagine that you supervise six emergency management specialists. You need to conduct reviews of these employees’ performance and job satisfaction. Recently, you have observed a decline in productivity scores and morale and want to identify the problems by interviewing the employees. Should you use a structured approach or an unstructured approach? This week, you will examine the characteristics and challenges of unstructured interviews, circumstances in which they would be appropriate, and their advantages and limitations. Next week, you will learn about structured interviews.


By the end of this week, you should be able to:

  • Analyze challenges to maintaining focus in an unstructured interview
  • Evaluate strategies for maintaining focus in an unstructured interview
  • Write unstructured interview questions to elicit information
  • Analyze advantages and limitations of unstructured interviews

Learning Resources

Required Readings

McClam, T., & Woodside, M. (2012). The helping process: Assessment to termination. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

  • Chapter 2, “The Assessment Phase” (Review)
  • Chapter 4, “Effective Intake Interviewing” (Review)
  • Chapter 6, “Service Delivery Planning”

Jones, K. D., (2010). The unstructured clinical interview. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 220-226.


Discussion: Challenges in Unstructured Interviews

“Tell me about your relationship with your daughter.”

“How satisfied were you with the services provided by your last family center?”

“Describe a time when you thought your alcohol usage affected your job performance.”

Unstructured interviews using questions like these often are used to gather information that might be subjective or specific to only one person. An unstructured interview is a conversation-based approach that is especially helpful in establishing rapport between interviewer and interviewee. Unstructured interviewers use strategies such as active listening and paraphrasing and summarizing, among others.

A challenge with unstructured interviews is that interviewees tend to deliberately or subconsciously avoid subjects that make them uncomfortable. This can make it difficult to accomplish the goals of the interview. In this Discussion, you will explore the challenges of unstructured interviews and consider strategies for maintaining focus to accomplish interview goals.

To prepare for this Discussion:  

  • Review the information in Chapter 2 in your course text, The Helping Process: Assessment to Termination. Focus on the section titled “Structured and Unstructured Interviews.”
  • Review the information in Chapter 4 in your course text, The Helping Process: Assessment to Termination. Focus on the section titled “Closed and Open Inquiries.”
  • Read the information in Chapter 6 in your course text, The Helping Process: Assessment to Termination. Focus on the section titled “Gathering Additional Information,” particularly the subsection titled “Interviewing.”
  • Read the article, “The Unstructured Clinical Interview.”
  • Reflect on the challenges of completing a successful unstructured interview. How would you determine what questions to ask? How would you control the topics covered?
  • Consider the following scenario:
    • You are a human services professional who works for an organization that offers parenting classes. A woman has been referred to the program because she has lost custody of her baby and must take the classes in order to regain custody. You are asked to interview her to determine her eligibility for the program and the type of parenting classes that would be the most helpful. She starts out answering your questions, but soon veers into a tirade against the food at the hospital where she gave birth and how badly the nurses treated her.

With these thoughts in mind:

By Day 4

  • Post by Day 4 a description of two strategies you might use to elicit the information you need from the woman in the scenario while still maintaining focus. Justify the strategies you selected using the Learning Resources.

Read a selection of your colleagues’ postings.

By Day 6


Assignment: Preparing for an Unstructured Interview

In an unstructured interview, the interviewer takes an organic, flexible approach to questioning rather than using a predetermined set of questions. Interviewers may prepare for the unstructured interview by planning sample questions to cover topics of conversation and brainstorming strategies to maintain focus.

In this Assignment, you will write unstructured interview questions and explore challenges interviewers face when conducting unstructured interviews.

The activity is designed to replicate the type of experience you would have during a follow-up meeting with an interviewee. Consider the scenario provided with the assumption that this interview is a follow-up visit to the initial intake interview, in which you begin to develop a plan to meet your interviewee’s needs.

To prepare for this Assignment:

  • Review the following scenario:
    • You are conducting an interview with an individual who had come to the community resource center at which you work. The interviewee is in need of employment, health care, and educational resources. The purpose of this interview is to gather more information in order to determine an appropriate course of action. You remember that at the previous interview, which was a structured interview, the interviewee had expressed dissatisfaction with a similar organization in her former community but had not said why she was dissatisfied. You think an unstructured interview might yield more relevant information than a structured interview this time.
  • Review the information in Chapter 4 in your course text, The Helping Process: Assessment to Termination. Focus on the section titled “Closed and Open Inquiries.”
  • Review the information in Chapter 6 in your course text, The Helping Process: Assessment to Termination. Focus on the section titled “Gathering Additional Information.”
  • Review the information in the article, “The Unstructured Clinical Interview,” found in the Learning Resources for this week. Focus on specific suggestions for how to formulate questions for an unstructured interview.

By Day 7

The Assignment:

Submit by Day 7 a 2- to 3-page paper that includes the following:

  • Three unstructured interview questions designed to gather information on the interviewees’ needs
  • An explanation of the challenges you might experience during this interview. Include some potential topics the interviewee might be uncomfortable discussing. Include information from both the Learning Resources and from your experience that you could use to address this challenge.
  • Two advantages and two limitations of unstructured interviews

Support your Assignment with specific references to all resources used in its preparation. You are asked to provide a reference list for all resources, including those in the Learning Resources for this course.