KEEPING THE GLOVES ON – TOP TIPS ON HOW TO DEAL WITH SENSITIVE ISSUES

By: Louise Bredholt

Sometimes in research you’re put in tricky positions – be that with a marginalised or under-represented individual or an individual dealing with a complex issue that’s hard to talk about. These situations are often associated with negative and difficult emotions like shame, denial, anxiety, fear, guilt, low self-esteem, anger – to name a few. So, you need to approach this type of research with a degree of care. And be prepared to manage these difficult issues. From exploring financial difficulty to conducting research with the homeless, our team of experts has worked on a range of projects dealing with sensitive issues. So here are some of our top tips on how to go about it.

DON’T BE A PROBLEM SOLVER – YOU’RE A RESEARCHER, NOT A THERAPIST

That means don’t judge, don’t give advice and try not to get too emotionally invested. Don’t get sucked into the therapist role and remember your place as a researcher. You’re there to listen, question and understand the issue at hand. But don’t blur the lines – remain professional and emotionally boundaried (which can be difficult!).

DON’T GET SIDE-TRACKED – STICK TO YOUR RESEARCH BRIEF

When you’re researching complex issues, it can be easy to get caught up in an individual’s story. But remember, you have one reason for being there – to answer your research brief. Using relevant questions will get you the answers you need. Avoid asking ‘why’, which can be hard for people to answer in these situations. Instead ask ‘how’ and ‘what’ led up to this moment because these are easier to access. And when planning, make sure the length of the session is long enough to sensitively handle the topic and ask the right questions to answer your brief – there’s nothing worse than rushing, especially in this type of research.

HEAR THEM OUT – LISTEN, LISTEN & LISTEN SOME MORE

Active listening is your key ammunition so be all ears, listen up and absorb what your respondent is saying. A good way to make sure your respondent feels heard is by summarising or paraphrasing what they’ve told you. It will also help build trust and show interest in what they’re saying.

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE – CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORDS & QUESTIONS

It can be hard to hear difficult stories. But don’t be at a loss for words, and make sure you use the right words in response to what you hear. You won’t be doing yourself any favours if the language you use is patronising, judgmental or belittling. So, make a conscious effort to be authentic, empathetic and open-minded. Don’t pretend to have all the answers and don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you haven’t had the same experiences. Say things like “I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for you” – not “I experienced something similar”.  And remember that sometimes silence can be a powerful tool too.

MAKE THEM FEEL AT HOME – CONVEY EMPATHY & BUILD TRUST

Sensitive issues can be very difficult to talk about – especially with a complete stranger. Particularly for situations that evoke feelings of shame and vulnerability, you need to make people feel safe, build trust and treat them with respect. Setting the right tone and language from the get go, specifying what you hope to get out of the session and why their input is needed for the research is a good way to kick start your session.

GET YOUR CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING – TECHNIQUES TO HELP YOU GET ANSWERS

When your questions just aren’t getting you the answers you need, there are some more creative techniques you can use. Using projective techniques that involve pictures, drawings, objects with meaning and film and video clips can help unlock the lateral language people sometimes need to put an experience into words. But be cautious: these techniques are better suited for less sensitive topics.

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So if you’d like to find out more, contact us or send an email over to our expert on researching vulnerable audiences, Dominique Peters directly.