FEATURE10 June 2011

How to deal with research on emotional topics

Some research topics can be difficult for both researcher and respondent, and it’s important to handle them right. Joanne Geere and Kate McEnery-Evans of Discovery Research share some advice on dealing with emotional topics.

There are some research projects you know are going to be emotionally charged, and some that surprise you. Over the years, we’ve learned lessons about how to plan, carry out and deal with research on these sorts of topics.

Earning trust
When you want to earn trust and create connections with audiences on sensitive subjects, traditional recruitment methods are not always the best way to go. For a project where we were researching women’s experiences of the help and support available when breastfeeding, we worked closely with local health practitioners to make initial contact. But to give the project legitimacy we had to go further, immersing ourselves in their world.

Many of the respondents we wanted to talk to were young mums, and it was crucial to the success of the project that we gained their trust and involved ourselves in their lives and culture. This was particularly important because teenage mums had received a lot of negative coverage from the media and we wanted to put their minds at ease that our interest was genuine. We went to the drop-in centres and favourite local spots and attended support groups to become familiar faces. While the approach was much more time-consuming for the researchers, it was rewarded with a group of mothers who were able to speak openly about their experiences, because they understood the intentions of the discussion and were more at ease with our company. Being recruited locally, the researchers had first-hand knowledge of the experiences of mums in their local environment.

Keeping an open mind
It’s especially important for researchers to be seen as non-judgemental when dealing with emotional topics. Both researchers on the breastfeeding project had no children of their own – a deliberate choice by the agency. By revealing early in the discussion that they didn’t have kids, the interviewers encouraged respondents to ‘educate’ them on the topic. The rationale was that without the direct experience of feeding, they wouldn’t bring preconceptions or judgements into what can be a controversial topic. Their immersion into the world of the young mums also helped build up a knowledge of the topic – meaning they were able to show empathy and understanding without passing judgement.

Near or far
Typically, research on emotional subjects is conducted face to face, but other methodologies shouldn’t be discounted. The skill is to consider the strengths and limitations of each methodology.

Speaking to users of a cancer support centre on behalf of a UK cancer charity, we carried out the pre-arranged interviews over the telephone. This approach allowed respondents clearly to divulge more because of tthe element of anonymity.

Sometimes clients consider focus groups a must, even with emotional subjects. In one case Discovery recommended depth interviews, and in the event both methodologies were employed – which allowed us to see the contrast between what emerged from each approach. In the conflict groups, a number of respondents were observed changing their stories from the initial pre-tasks and questionnaires that had been undertaken. One respondent misled her fellow group members into thinking she owned her own home, and two others who were the most affluent desperately tried to downplay their financial circumstances when it became clear the majority of the group were receiving benefits. We found people were reluctant to share in the groups. Respondents didn’t lie, but they were less than forthcoming because they felt they were being judged by the others. Conversely in the depth interviews respondents were confident enough to be honest and open and the results were richer as a result. The lesson is that repeat engagement is a must for more emotional projects, allowing respondents to download and then reflect.

Online methodologies also have their place in researching emotions. Great work has been undertaken on emotional, health-related topics such as incontinence, where respondents felt they could share their emotions on forums with other sufferers, because of the anonymity they had. Researchers could follow issues up on a one-to-one basis.

Don’t clockwatch
Another lesson we’ve learned is that you can’t put strict time limits on interviews when it comes to emotional topics. If respondents are likely to get upset, you need to be sympathetic and patient. Moving respondents along to a strict topic guide and set of timings simply doesn’t work. For the breastfeeding project we agreed that we would not use a time plan or a topic guide. Although this was unusual, it was essential that the respondents trusted us, allowing them to talk on the topics that mattered to them in their own time, gave them control over a difficult discussion, while providing us with rich insights.

Sharing the experience
One of the key issues we face is handling the emotional stress put on the researchers who are interviewing respondents on emotionally charged topics. Face-to-face interviews can be draining and in some cases upsetting for the researcher as well as respondent. A number of the women interviewed about breastfeeding became upset and the team often felt more like counsellors than researchers. Some women had never discussed any of these issues with anyone – even their partners – and the opportunity to offload was clearly a relief to them. The two of us working on this project discussed every interview afterwards together and with the managing director who was also involved. This was hugely helpful because we were speaking to women who had poured out their hearts and souls to us about their experiences – it was a draining experience and we needed someone to share this with.

Techniques are essential
There are projects where emotion comes out that you don’t expect. This happened in a financial services research project looking at the communication around reductions in consumers’ credit card spending limits. The research team at Discovery quickly realised that some of the interviews were emotionally charged because respondents were often depressed, having lost their jobs and suffered significant cuts in income. Images were employed as a way to absorb the shock of confronting the emotions underlying what had happened. Visuals and drawings open the door for you as a researcher. If the respondent will let you in, you can use them to move the conversation from the functional issues to the emotional. Techniques like these allow the respondent to think and talk logically about topics and the researcher to manage the discussion in a natural, progressive way.

Joanne Geere and Kate McEnery-Evans are research directors at Discovery, specialising in qualitative research