My editor was crying so much when she read my thesis that her housemate came home and thought she had been dumped by her boyfriend. My editor, like many others, asked how I elicited such rich material from my research participants. And the answer is as difficult as it is simple: I listened.
I run several sessions a semester on how to do research interviews and I always wonder whether these sessions would be better titled, ‘Listening’. A good interview means asking the right questions, of course. But at the same time, the best material is often revealed unexpectedly. When profound insights are made, it is not that a question was asked so much as a revelation was made. So as a social researcher, how does one increase the probability and frequency of eliciting rich revelations? Well, you listen.
It is important (and useful) for me to elaborate on this.
Listening is more than just hearing. Listening is an active, engaged and embodied practice. I actively listen by feeding back to participants what I have heard. I ask if I have heard and interpreted their narrative correctly. I am engaged in the listening by giving participants my undivided attention. My phone is off, I don’t wear a watch and I explain to people that their story is important to me. Listening is embodied because you must demonstrate, physically, that you are not only hearing, but that you are understanding. Body language matters. As well as this, you need to make sure that your participant is physically comfortable – telling your story is an embodied practice too. You can’t expect someone to tell their most intimate secrets when you are sitting in a cold room in an uncomfortable chair.
Now this seems clear and commonsensical. But the dilemmas begin to arise when you start to wonder what body language you should demonstrate when someone tells you that they cut their own flesh to escape the pain of their life? Or how long you give your undivided attention to people’s trauma stories? Or how you feedback someone’s life story that is so traumatic you are too terrified to repeat it? It is how you respond to these predicaments that will determine how much people will reveal to you. People do not expect you to solve their problems, but they would like you to acknowledge them. In everyday life, we try and offer people solutions all of the time. Rarely is this useful.
Someone close to me was going through IVF. She received countless people telling her that ‘if it was meant to be, it will be’ along with, ‘Just stop thinking about it and then it will happen!’.
I have never tried to conceive a baby let alone tried and not been able to, but it seemed to me that these people were insanely inconsiderate – this advice was absurd. It was of no surprise to me that despite these well-intended offerings, my friend stopped speaking to them about her troubles. They had tried to put a ‘positive spin’ on it and in doing so, showed that they completely failed to understand the significance of this issue to her. They did not offer her a solution but rather, silenced her from speaking with them again.
Last week I realised the power of this first-hand.
I was at work and in small-talk in the kitchen, a couple of colleagues offered that I was ‘lucky’ to do my PhD without a family. It freed me of the burden of care, apparently. With a sense of belligerence that has accumulated over time, I replied that I'd have rather had my family.
My colleagues suggested that having a family and doing a PhD makes you feel guilty because you neglect your relationships. So I pointed out that I haven’t had a home to go to for a meal in four years. They said the novelty of that wears off. They appeared to view their families as a distraction from their work rather than their work as a distraction from their family. But of course, they didn’t really think this, they were just saying it. If they would really rather have no family, they could choose to sever ties with their own. Throughout all of this I was standing there and my inner voice was screaming to them ‘Stop talking! Just stop talking!’.
Eventually one of them said to me, ‘I am just trying to put a positive spin on it’. And this is exactly why I was so desperate for her to stop talking.
Some things don’t have a positive spin. Some things are awful and when we try and say they are not, we are invalidating the very real experiences of another. To try and put a positive spin on something doesn’t improve how someone feels, it diminishes their pain. To tell someone experiencing infertility that pregnancy will happen when the time is right is overlooking the reality that it might not and it is wilfully overlooking all of the cases in life where pregnancy has happened for people when the time was completely wrong.
Putting a ‘positive spin’ on someone’s story means that you are taking a creative licence with their narrative. It is offensive and it is problematic. When we ask someone to share with us their story, we must be prepared to hear it. When we interview somebody our aim is not to make them feel happy but to make them feel understood. It is okay if they are sad, and it is okay for you to be able to say nothing more than ‘I am sorry you experienced such pain’.
Acknowledging somebody’s struggle doesn’t exacerbate their pain, it honours it. When we interview people our job is not to solve their problems, our job is to listen to them.