Eliciting Spill: A methodological note

Alvita Nathaniel, Ph.D.

Classic grounded theory is an inductive process that focuses on
the experiences and perceptions of research participants (Glaser,
1978, 1998). Although grounded theorists may utilize other types
of data, most are likely to gather information through qualitative
interviews. The theorist seeks to understand what is going on as
people resolve their main concern in a given substantive area.
People know what is important to them and most want to tell
their stories. They feel encouraged to talk when they recognize
that their stories are valued. Once the informant realizes that he
or she is being heard, the story flows. This is what Glaser refers
to as “spill.” When this occurs, the theorist becomes a vessel to
receive the story. As Glaser describes it, “The researcher will
become a ‘big ear’ to pour into incessantly” (1998, p. 124). But, as
easy as this seems, the researcher must overcome certain
positivist tendencies to allow this to happen. Rather than asking
a list of pre-planned questions, the grounded theorist will try to
develop one question that will trigger the telling of a story.
Eliciting spill requires a deliberate process that employs a deep
understanding of the fundamentals of classic grounded theory.
Derived from Glaser’s writings, the following are suggestions
intended to help the novice grounded theorist to elicit spill.

Prepare for the Interview

The theorist must understand how the classic grounded
theory method guides every step of the process. Grounded
theories emerge from data: they are not preconceived. For that
reason, the theorist should choose a broad substantive area. It is
more likely that the researcher will be able to recognize
important concepts and patterns of behavior if the area of study
is relatively broad. For example, life transitions pose many
problems which must be processed or resolved. These periods of
change provide rich data for analysis and culminate in important
theories. The researcher must be open to hearing the story from
the informant’s perspective. After all, the focus of the research in
classic grounded theory revolves around the participant’s own
perception of a problem in their lives and their struggle to resolve
the problem. Attentively listening to participants’ stories and
remaining open to their ideas and interpretations is the only way
the researcher can arrive at new knowledge.

To avoid preconception, which halts the generation of new
knowledge, it is best if the theorist reviews the literature after
the GT process is well underway. However, because of
institutional pressures, it is likely that most researchers will
conduct a literature review early in the research process. So, an
alternative to delaying the review of literature is to consciously
put aside what has been learned from the literature and enter
each interview with an open mind, free of preconception. This
requires conscious effort and time for decompression between the
literature review and data collection.

Choose the Right Sample

A grounded theory emerges from a group’s main concern and
how it is continually processed or resolved. As the theorist seeks
to understand what is going on with a group of people, he or she
should focus attention on that specific group and give careful
attention to choosing an appropriate sample. The researcher may
want to interview a few people close to those involved in the
substantive area under study to learn more about associated
social-structural processes, to theoretically sample, and so forth.
However, the theory is properly discovered by sampling those
directly involved. For example, if one wishes to know about the
transition from freedom to prison, interview prisoners; if one
wishes to learn about nurses’ moral dilemmas, interview nurses.

Choose the Right Setting

Except in the case of field research, most interviews should
be conducted in settings conducive to open and free discourse:
places where both researcher and informant are comfortable
enough to be truly present, without pretence or fear. The setting
should be a physically comfortable, neutral space where the
informant feels free to honestly disclosure personal and sensitive
information. The wrong setting can be a strong impediment. For
example, an experienced grounded theorist described his first
interview with a top-level leader. He conducted the interview in
the informant’s office. As you might expect, the informant
answered each question with the officially correct and proper
answer—he was “properlining.” A second interview in a neutral
place yielded a wealth of information. The informant no longer
felt restricted by his official role and was able to communicate on
a human-to-human level.

Ask the Right Question

Grounded theory seeks to conceptualize a main concern as
experienced and perceived by the participants in a substantive
area, so it must be a concern for those individuals and not simply
a professional concern of the researcher. The researcher chooses
the substantive area and sample population and allows the main
concern to emerge from the study. Few informants will have
much to say in response to a problem that they do not perceive as
a concern. If the researcher ends up asking lots of questions to
elicit information, he or she has probably asked the wrong “spill”

When crafting the spill question, the researcher should be
careful to avoid false assumptions that will derail the theory. The
researcher should not assume, for example, that parents love a
child, alcoholics wish to be sober, or middle managers wish to
advance in an organization. Perhaps a parent despises a child, an
alcoholic enjoys drinking, or a middle manager is comfortable in
a current position. If the posed question assumes a falsehood,
spill cannot occur.

A good question is clearly stated, simple, and free from
confusing connotations. The question should include common
language appropriate to informants’ education and cultural
group and should be as free as possible from connotations that
confuse meaning. Many terms in common usage have
contradictory meanings and are easily misunderstood. The
researcher should avoid professional jargon, which creates power
imbalance and can become a barrier to genuine human-to-human
discourse. If the informant understands the jargon, he or she
may feel compelled to match the language to impress the
researcher with his or her knowledge. On the other hand, the
informant cannot answer meaningfully a question that is


Unless conducting a field study on how informants react to
conspicuous researchers, the researcher should attempt to blend
with them. Blending means looking and sounding like the people
one is with. People are more likely to speak openly and honestly
if they are comfortable in the presence of another. Most people
are comfortable with others that seem to be like them. Within
reason, the researcher should dress in a manner that blends with
the informant. If the informant is an executive who wears
business suits, the researcher should not arrive in blue jeans. If
the informant is a patient in a free clinic, the researcher should
avoid dressy clothing and jewelry.

The researcher should attempt to be inconspicuous in sound
as well by matching speech volume and cadence to that of the
informant. For example, questions delivered in a rapid, clipped
Manhattan speech pattern might be a put-off in an Alabama
nursing home. Again, this is a rule-of-thumb that requires
reasoned judgment; but, most people are more comfortable with
people who are like them and are more likely to spill when they
feel comfortable.

Encourage Spill

People want to be heard and respected. Certain purposefully
used communication strategies convey respect and encourage
spill. Giving nonjudgmental, undivided attention will send a
message that the informant has a contribution that is worth
hearing. The researcher should begin the conversation with an
open, non-judgmental question that encourages the informant to
tell his or her own story. The question can begin with the words,
“Tell me about….” or “What was it like when….” In many cases,
this is all that is required to elicit spill. If the informant is
comfortable and has a main concern, the story will flow. Unless it
is culturally inappropriate, the researcher should make good eye
contact and listen carefully without worrying about the next
question. If the narrative stalls, the researcher can encourage the
informant to continue by using statements such as, “Go on,” “Tell
me more about that,” and so forth. Gaps in the narrative and
periods of silence allow the informant to gather thoughts and
give the impression that the researcher believes the story is
worth waiting for.

Telling the truth can be dangerous. Grounded theory studies
in the past have uncovered questionable business practices,
unethical medical acts, and so forth. During the interview,
informants will try to measure the danger they will put
themselves in if they spill this type of information. This is one of
the reasons that Glaser (1998) discourages audio taping. Most
people hesitate to disclose sensitive or dangerous information in
the presence of a tape recorder. Conspicuous note-taking can
have the same cooling affect. So, the researcher is more likely to
elicit sensitive information without audio tapes or note taking. If
one must tape or take notes, it should be done as inconspicuously
as possible.


Spill is more likely to occur if the researcher follows the
fundamental rules of classic grounded theory, sets the stage, and
seeks the truth as known by the informant. Theory emerges from
stories that people tell about a concern that they have
experienced. The researcher must choose the right sample,
choose the right setting, and ask the right question. Strategies to
encourage spill include making the informant comfortable,
blending, asking open ended questions, and listening. Through
knowledge of GT methodology and use of subtle yet effective
communication strategies, the researcher can elicit spill — the
grounded data of GT research.


Alvita Nathaniel, Ph.D., APRN, BC
Director, Nurse Practitioner Track
School of Nursing
West Virginia University
Charleston, WV, US
Email: anathaniel@hsc.wvu.edu


Glaser, B. G. (1998). Doing Grounded Theory: Issues and
discussions. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

Glaser, B. G. (1978). Theoretical Sensitivity. Mill Valley, CA:
Sociology Press.