Doing Research on Difficult or Sensitive Topics

By Naomi Henderson

 

While no QRE [Qualitative Research Event] is ever “easy,” there are some topics that are not all that challenging to a seasoned moderator. It is not difficult to present several concepts to respondents and have them pick a winner after discussion. It is not particularly challenging to have respondents review several storyboards and pull out the key themes and the RTBs [Reasons To Believe]. It is very easy to talk about what respondents like and don’t like about their last big ticket purchase.

It is a challenge, however, to talk about terminal illness with a cancer patient or talk with family members about losing a child due to an accident or malpractice. It is wrenching to talk to widows about how they plan to manage death benefit payments 90 days after the funeral of a spouse. As well, it is challenging to talk about gay rights, racism, discrimination, and obesity.

It is hard to be dispassionate when a respondent describes what rage feels like when challenged after presenting food stamps at the cashier and being told “baby diapers don’t quality under the food stamp program.” When the respondent is on the program because she lost her job due to grief when her husband died in Afghanistan, leaving her with twins babies. Even seasoned moderators have concerns when topics like these appear on the horizon.

While the four stages of a QRE [intro, rapport/reconnaissance, in-depth investigation, and closure] are the same, regardless of topic, the way one enters and exits a difficult or sensitive topic is very different. The ground rules vary, the requests for altruistic contributions vary, and how a moderator manages his or her own emotions is very different from a classic QRE on purchase intent, interest in a line extension, or choosing a delivery systems for a new lotion.

It is important to start a QRE on the right foot when the topic is difficult or sensitive and one needs to have mechanisms in place for handling both respondent emotions and the moderator’s own emotions. The interventions or projective techniques have to be chosen with care so they can deliver more than top of mind responses but not so deep that the moderator has entered the “therapy zone.”

There are times when moderators should recuse themselves when they don’t feel they can handle the issue or the emotions in a QRE study and to do so with grace and dignity, giving the client alternatives for how the study might be conducted with another researcher. For example, it would be wise for a female moderator to rescuse herself for a study involving convicted murderers in a maximum security prison on the topic of the additional services that could be offered by the Chaplain’s office.

In summary, the possibility arises that every QRE can be a challenge and a seasoned moderator can often rise to the challenge and obtain key information for client decision-making. However, when the topic is difficult or sensitive, a new set of standards and boundaries come into play and a wise moderator knows if they are up to task when the bar is raised.

I will be presenting a webinar on this topic on September 12, 2014. With years of experience moderating difficult and sensitive topics, I am excited for this opportunity to share my own tools and tips for other moderators. If you are interested, please visit our website for more information or email training@rivainc.com.

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2 thoughts on “Doing Research on Difficult or Sensitive Topics

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