It’s a conversation, not an interview

“I understand”

“That sounds frustrating”

“Tell me more about how that made you feel”

A selection of the phrases I find myself saying in various groups, in-depth interviews and forums across a myriad of projects. As a qualitative researcher, our ability to empathise is core to what we do. The people we speak to need to feel that their stories are heard, understood and valued.

But it’s not always so easy; at times you catch yourself saying “I understand” and think – do I really understand what they’re going through? Even when discussing the most trivial topics, people can reveal incredibly personal truths – be it financial troubles, health issues, even bereavement. But because they’re speaking to a ‘moderator’, they can feel vulnerable, and the act of divulging that information can make them retreat from other topics.

In these situations, we as researchers must live up to our responsibility to ensure participants feel comfortable and are treated as humans rather than just a source of insight. As a result, it’s easy in these circumstances to avoid digging deeper through fear of creating an uncomfortable environment for them.

The pandemic has helped build better conversations

Strangely – that’s where the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for us to better connect with those we talk to; helping us to have conversations with people rather than interviews with ‘participants’.

Firstly, it’s created common ground. Whilst we don’t all have the same experiences from the last few years, we are united by this unique time in history (intentional swerve of the term ‘unprecedented’). I’ve found this has opened up topics of conversation that in ‘normal times’, we may not have reached as easily. For instance, chatting about the frustrations of cancelled weddings, holidays or other grand plans – has often led to further introspection of what people want from life more broadly. I wonder if it’s an ability we’ll retain for years to come, as the effects of the pandemic continue to unravel.

Secondly, whilst online moderation is no doubt more distant than face-to-face; it suits some people better. It can be uncomfortable for some to express themselves and reveal personal experiences when sitting across the table from ‘the moderator’. But giving those people the space and comfort of their own homes can reduce underlying anxieties, and free them up to have more open and honest conversations.

What does that mean for us?

By having more natural conversations we reassure those that we speak to that there truly are “no right or wrong answers” (another go-to phrase), and that we’re not here to pry, we’re truly trying to empathise and understand them as people.

Through our combined experiences and learnings from the pandemic, we’re now better equipped to build the trust required to make people feel they’re in a conversation rather than an interview. This ‘people first’ approach allows us to craft environments where we discuss their motivations, feelings and opinions without fear of judgement or of not being ‘helpful’. In this setting, we uncover more human-centric insights, that ultimately help us to unlock opportunity for our clients.