Participating in qualitative research can turn out to be surprisingly emotional for some of our respondents. Most of us in the office have had experiences of respondents ending up rather shaken up after a focus group or an in home session. Some people might never be given the time or space to speak about their lives and doing so with a stranger can be more disturbing than one would expect.
The AQR’s Spark session on how to borrow from the world of psychotherapy in qualitative research appeared to be the perfect opportunity to try and learn from these situations.
Nicky Forsythe, psychotherapist and ex-quallie, argues that everyone has the ability to listen to someone in an ‘empathetic’, therapeutic way. In fact, there are even studies showing how an ‘untrained’ individual listening (but really listening) to someone else can have the same, if not better, cathartic effect than going to a professional therapist. It is not to undermine the value of the latter, but simply to recognize that as human beings we can connect with each other in significant ways through sharing pieces of our stories. Nicky is also the founder of Talk for Health, an organisation promoting accessible and everyday therapeutic talk to increase wellbeing.
Empathetic listening is not new for most experienced qualitative researchers – it is premised on concepts such as having no judgements, open mindedness, not thinking about our next line too much, and staying focused on the other person. Techniques such as mirroring or paraphrasing our respondents’ stories for instance are often used to connect with the respondents and put them at ease.
Of course, providing some sort of cathartic therapy to our respondents is not usually our main objective. However, demonstrating empathy can also enable us to gain valuable insights into what people think. I was delighted to see anthropologist Margaret Mead quoted: ‘There is a big difference between what people say, what people do and what people say they do.’ This is where empathetic listening can be a way for us to gain precision and nuance in our interpretation. It can allow us to more carefully look out for body language cues or paradoxical statements that we can incorporate into a sharper analysis
In every job, people have to negotiate between their professional self and their private self. However, in qualitative research this boundary can seem particularly fuzzy as human connection is such a big part of it. We have to stay focused on our research objectives whilst creating a relationship with our respondents to make them comfortable. During the talk, we spoke about how to remain professional while giving bits of our ‘real’ self, which can be tougher than it seems.
Nicky unexpectedly demonstrated herself how to potentially settle this issue. She had been struggling with some family issues in the few days preceding and was even thinking of cancelling the talk. She approached it by telling us her story as an exercise for us to do empathetic listening. It was very professional on the one hand (because used for the exercise), as well as authentically personal and raw on the other.
I hesitated to include this here because it felt somewhat ‘unprofessional’ to mention, but I realised that was what made the talk so tangible for me.
If I have to be authentic myself, I must admit I felt quite emotionally drained afterwards. It was a very powerful exercise to illustrate how these situations can be simultaneously disconcerting and empowering. Disconcerting because seeing someone open up in a professional context is slightly unsettling, but empowering because it reminds you that everyone is human, including yourself – and that’s ok!