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Researching tough stuff: Don’t let them see you cry

November 27, 2012

When you are conducting qualitative research you are trained to think about your client all the time.  You are always thinking about their objectives and whether you have covered everything you need to cover in the interview and how what you are doing is going to feed into a report and up the way into your client’s strategy and plans.

You are also trained to think about the respondent all the time.  Everything is set up with the respondent in mind so that it will be ethical and comfortable and easy for them to say what they want to say in a way that suits them.

I have conducted *loads* of focus groups and interviews in the last ten years and very occasionally the subject matter has been difficult for the respondent – particularly when working in the charitable sector and addressing issues such as mental health or drugs or unemployment and the like.  Respondents are given the opportunity to talk solely about themselves and their feelings in a safe environment for half an hour, and the emotion creeps up on them.  Once or twice, when sharing their stories, the respondent has got a bit teary or decided they don’t want to say any more.  Fair enough, that’s what happens when you are talking to vulnerable people about difficult things that have happened in their lives.  You do everything you can do avoid it, you empathise when it happens, you don’t let them away until you’re sure they are OK, and you do your best to learn from the experience and ensure that it happens as infrequently as possible.

But what if you, the researcher, are the one that has the emotional response?

Once in my career I have thought I might cry during an interview with a respondent.  For like 20 minutes.  Which is a lot when there is just the two of you in the room and you are supposed to be asking the questions.

Whilst it was a difficult topic it was by no means the most shocking thing anyone had told me, or the most harrowing tale I have heard.  Nor was the situation something that I had personally had any experience of.  The respondent didn’t cry, they were coping with unfortunate circumstances admirably and spoke about it in a very stoic and matter of fact way.  In fact they said speaking to me about it was therapeutic.

And yet I spent the majority of the interview trying to hold back the tears.  There was just something about how it all came together that pushed my buttons and resulted in a very strong emotional response from me.

And it genuinely took me by surprise.

So what do you do when that happens?

Empathise, yes.

Show gratitude that someone has shared their personal stories with you, yes.

Cry, no.

You suck it up, that’s what you do.  It is not your place to get emotional, it is your place to create a safe and supportive environment for the respondent and make sure they leave the session feeling appreciated.  If you cry, you will make the respondent feel bad.  You put yourself to the side until afterwards.

I honestly don’t think I could have predicted that this particular session, ten years into my career, would be the one that made me feel like that.  So if you can’t predict it, what you can do?

I do look after myself in the sense that I have one or two subjects that it would be emotionally difficult for me to hear about (or present back to the client, eek!), and I don’t bid for work in those areas.  You could do the same, or think about offering your junior colleagues the option to opt out of projects with no questions asked.

And if it happens and you find yourself welling up you can change the subject, or have a glass of water, or chew on a biscuit, or do whatever you need to do to steel yourself until it is over.  At which point you can wail or scream or talk to a colleague about how it made you feel.

Other than that, on this occasion I don’t have any words of wisdom or top tips to impart.  But I’m putting out there so that you can think about what you might do if it happens to you.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2012 11:30 pm

    Hi Ruth – thanks for your post. You can see my response here (it got too long for a comment on your page, but that’s because it was thought-provoking!):

  2. July 28, 2013 9:37 pm

    I really like what you guys are usually up too. This
    kind of clever work and exposure! Keep up the superb works
    guys I’ve included you guys to our blogroll.


  1. Another perspective on researchers getting emotional « ruthlessresearch
  2. Qualitative research as a mental health promoting activity | ruthlessresearch
  3. Presentation of self and the quest for neutrality in social research | Anthropologizing

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