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OPINION8 May 2017

Listen with empathy

Opinion UK

What might be a straightforward qual exercise to the moderator, could be an emotional journey for the participant explains Lucie Holliday

The man I was interviewing was your typical CEO-type.  He was confident and proud as he talked to me about his luxury car – what had made him come to purchase his vehicle, and his experience of ownership to date. 

I asked him to cast his mind back to his earliest memory of a car.  He became visibly emotional as he told me about the very first day he had ever got into a car – when as a small boy, he had been picked up from foster care by his new adoptive family. He remembered scrambling over the running boards of the car as he climbed into the back seat. His first association with cars was one of homecoming, of safety – for the first time in his short life, of belonging.

I still get goose bumps when I tell that story, but it’s by no means the only time a participant has become emotional during a research session. 

It’s so seldom nowadays that anyone sits and actively listens to us that the experience for a participant can be an intense and cathartic one, even when discussing ostensibly banal topics. And depending who the client is, these emotional moments may be even closer to the surface. I consider it a privilege as a moderator to be privy to these moments.

But then the interview ends – and all that is left is to pay the respondent their incentive, thank them and leave. If our respondent has opened up emotionally, we run the risk of embarrassing them – or at worst, leaving them alone to dwell on thoughts and memories they perhaps weren’t expecting to unearth. 

As qualitative researchers, we are (I’d like to think!) naturally empathetic people who can navigate raw moments with sensitivity and understanding. It’s important at this point to say we are NOT therapists and shouldn’t pretend to be.  

However we have an obligation to our participants to have appropriate techniques for difficult moments, and we should also keep this in mind when training new moderators. 

These simple steps were developed with counsellors and are based on therapeutic methods. We’ll call our participant John.

  1. Normalise: start by telling John you’ve spoken to lots of people (even if you haven’t) and that your participants are often surprised by how much they have to say
  2. Clearly state how long the interview will be and flag when you’re nearing the end; if John hits an emotional moment as you draw to a close, he doesn’t feel like he’s been cut off
  3. Notice body language: if he leans forward, lean forward too. If he speaks more quietly, lower your voice. Practice ‘unconditional positive regard’ – don’t squirm or act uncomfortable
  4. Listen: as researchers, we’ve often got half an eye on the next question. Quiet your brain, turn fully to your respondent, and respectfully absorb what they’re saying 
  5. Notice and acknowledge: if John is emotional, say something like ‘I can see this is an emotional thing for you to talk about. Would you like to take a moment?’ Often this pause is enough time for them to gather themselves – then they can choose whether they wish to continue or change the subject
  6. Summarise, normalise and thank – at the end of the interview, summarise your discussion. ‘You shared with me that xyz, thank you for doing that – you’re not the first person who has told me about something that is clearly very meaningful to them’
  7. Leave on a good note: at the end of the interview, lighten the mood. Change the subject, make small talk. Observe John’s body language, watch to see if he relaxes. If necessary, ask if he has someone he could call or be with until he feels better.

I’ll end with another anecdote. A colleague of mine was interviewing a lady in her home. He’s an empathetic guy and it became obvious to him that he was the only company the lady had seen for some time. When the allotted time drew to an end, he stayed on for a good hour, chatting away about anything and everything – even helping her with her washing up. 

Sometimes what is ‘just another interview’ to us can take on a bigger meaning in the lives of our participants, and we couldn’t do what we do without them – so it’s certainly worth taking the time to ensure that the experiences we give them are positive ones.

Lucie Holliday is founder of Lucidity Research

1 Comment

5 months ago

I enjoyed your posting, "Listen with Empathy." Qualitative Research demands exactly the interpersonal approach which you endorse. I wonder if Ms. Holliday is familiar with the works of Martin Buber and Maurice Friedman. Their contributions to qualitative research via the philosophy of dialogue form the cornerstone of my interest and research on empathy and dialogue. Your approach as described in the piece is so close to theirs that it is striking. Their approach has much to do with the heart of the therapeutic interaction! Thank you for your contribution. RDS

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