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Qualitative Research into Sensitive Topics

22 January 2019 - BY Kaitlyn Myers

Conducting qualitative research into known sensitive areas can often trigger an emotional response from the respondent.  But what kind of care should be provided for both the respondent and the researcher?  These strong, emotional responses can happen during qualitative research into any subject area; planning ahead is key to self-care.

In a recent webinar by NVivo, there was a panel discussion with Darby Steiger, Senior survey methodologist at Westat and Sarah Jalbert, Principal Associate at Abt Associates.  The interactive conversation covered the types of care researchers try to have organized and available for respondents and themselves if it’s needed, as well as some signs to look for. 

Tips for Respondents

Here are some of the tips shared in the webinar for respondents:
  • Training for interviewers.  Ensure interviewers are educated to recognize if a respondent needs help or support during the interview so they can respond appropriately. Signs of distress can range from Neutral (teary eyes), Low-to-moderate (crying, shaking voice), to Elevated (sobbing, flashblacks). Interviewers need to know when to pause or stop an interview and when they should offer the support of a counsellor.
  • Advance preparation. Interviewers need to have in place beforehand a Distress Protocol. They need to have specific language ahead of time to use in the event of adverse events.  For instance, “It sounds as if you need help”, “I'm concerned about your safety and wellbeing”, and “I'd like you to talk to someone who may be able to assist you.”
  • Organize available resources.  If the respondent is in distress, interviewers can offer to call someone on their behalf. Have a list of resources as appropriate to local groups, social services, etc.  (Be sure to have separate lists for adults vs youth resources.)
However, care for the researcher is not to be overlooked.  Qualitative research into sensitive topics can impact the researcher, too.  Self-care[1] should include awareness (are you still thinking about the respondent for a period after the interview session?), balance (set time to relax to set healthy boundaries between work and home life), and connection (check in frequently with your supervisor to share your experiences).

Tips for Researchers

Other suggestions shared during the webinar included:
  • Training for researchers.  Researchers should stay informed with self-care techniques (see suggestions above), including how to handle his or herself during interviews, when to seek help, and how to protect identities when seeking help. 
  • Foster your own personal advisory board.  Researchers would be well served to nurture their own network of professionals to reach out to when needed.  This could be peer-led; some organizations even have their own Internal Review Board.
  • Consider different outcomes in advance. Try to think through what could happen early on in your research process so you can develop a contingency plan.  Planning ahead is key to being prepared.
Emotional responses and signs of distress can occur during qualitative research into any subject area (even when it’s unexpected).  Educating the researcher, preparing for all scenarios, and organizing supporting resources are just some of the important ways you can plan ahead.

What’s Next

Interested in learning more? Check out the full webinar on demand. 



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[1] Self-care ABC’s adapted from: http://www.plu.edu/womenscenter/widgets/documents-forms/items/vicarious-trauma.pdf