Sitting in John’s* back garden I find myself asking ‘Can you tell me a little bit about your brother?’
John’s younger brother had recently taken his own life on a train track near their family home. As the eldest brother, John had taken ownership of all arrangements as his parent hadn’t felt able to – with seemingly very little support along the way. We spent the next 3 hours discussing his guilt, family tensions and the sheer devastation in the aftermath of his brother’s death.
We do a lot of research on sensitive topics at Jigsaw, and so I know from experience that it can be somewhat unpredictable, upsetting and emotionally strenuous. Naturally very different to your typical FMCG project.
Needless to say, this is a hugely complex topic area – which I couldn’t possibly unpick in detail here, but here are a few thoughts on how to approach researching sensitive subjects …
From a practical perspective, be prepared to be flexible:
- Give respondents the option to choose the venue for the discussion. For many, this might be their home (more comfortable, familiar, reassuring etc.) – but others may feel better able to talk in a neutral environment – one which is not as loaded with emotion and memories.
- Giving them the opportunity to include a friend or family member in the session. As well as providing support for the individual, this can also have a beneficial role in the research i.e. the friend or family member can play a role in jogging their memory
- The flow & duration of the session is likely to be less linear. As we know from other strands of research, the self-selecting nature of research often means that respondents are keen to talk. And this can be particularly true when dealing with sensitive subject matters such as bereavement. The person may welcome the opportunity to engage and ‘offload’ to a stranger – someone anonymous with no emotional stake in the situation. But equally, be prepared that the respondent may want to get through the process as quickly and (hopefully, painlessly) as possible
But also, from a more emotional, human point of view:
- It is particularly important to build a level of trust, and that can take time. Talking more broadly to begin with, without pushing your agenda too early on
- Talking about sensitive subjects does require a certain level of empathy – to demonstrate (more so than ever) that you are listening and that you’re making an effort to understand their situation, their thoughts and feelings. It’s likely that the subject area may be out of the realms of your experience – so you may need to work a little harder to put yourself in their shoes
- You’re also likely to have to make a bit of a judgement call at times too. There may be burning questions – but are they fair or appropriate to ask? We have a duty of care to respondents which must over-ride research concerns
I also think it’s important to remember how tough this process can be for the researcher. Often, it seems that we put a lot of effort into ensuring the respondent feels comfortable and at ease, but we don’t think about the implications for us.
Naturally these types of projects are much more emotionally loaded and so it can be important to give ourselves more time to reflect on, and digest each session. Make time to talk to other colleagues working on the project or build extra time into the analysis session to allow for decompression. Your colleagues are most likely to understand how you’re feeling – and want to discuss it too…