9 Tips When Approaching Sensitive Research Topics

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Let’s talk about personal hygiene. Or sex? How about death and illness?

Researchers know too well that not all topics are easy to talk about, and there are certain topics of conversation that people will naturally shy away from because they are deemed too personal, stressful, sacred, or deal with a fear of stigmatization.

In our work, we have dealt with a variety of highly personal, sensitive topics from personal care (hygiene, body image, etc.) to health and wellness (illness, psychological disorders, aging, etc.). We know that dealing with these topics takes patience and experience to truly get the most out of your conversations, but still respect and protect the consumer.

Here are our top 9 tips when approaching sensitive research topics.

1. Use online platforms so they can feel a little more anonymous in their sharing
Even if you are doing in-person work, starting out online can act as a perfect warm up, allowing respondents to share more while “hiding behind their screen”.  Start with private online activities and then slowly transition to online group discussion to get respondents more comfortable sharing with others. At antedote, our online platforms allows us to prime our consumers with exercises, from questionnaires or virtual collages, warming them up for the actual face-to-face time, and ultimately allowing for deeper, richer, and more focused conversation.

2. Consider the environment
Traditional conference style tables and chairs can feel rather cold and uncomfortable. Consider starting with a happy hour with appetizers and wine, then moving into a relaxed living room setting to do the group talk.

3. Set up the conversation
The beginning of the conversation is crucial. Spend ample time talking about the flow of the day before getting started and answering any questions. Help set their expectations to put their minds at ease by using phrases like “there are no wrong answers” and “we don’t know what we we’re looking for”.

4. First, talk about something else
Don’t just dive right into the sensitive topic. “How do you feel about the way your skin looks?” is obviously never a good starter. Instead begin by talking about how the behavior plays out in a different, less sensitive category first, then work your way to the intended sensitive topic.

For example, if the topic being studied is evening skin tone, which can become a sensitive discussion due to its associations around aging, personal care and cleanliness, you can begin by first talking about the same behavior in a more comfortable scenario, such as stain/removal in household care. You can facilitate the conversation around removing stains from clothing, sheets, or whitening teeth – then tactfully move into skin. Respondents are more likely to talk freely about a less personal topic first, so it’s a good way to start out.

5. Allow them to educate you
Don’t assume you know everything. Leave all assumptions and pre-conceived notions behind. Ask for them to teach you about what is going on. What do they hope for from products? What is it like to be them? What do they wish people knew? You be the student and let them be the teacher.

6. Have them share with one another
Set up forums or focus groups as a safe place for discussion. If everyone in the group is dealing with the same sensitivity, they may even enjoy exchanging tips or suggestions or empathizing with one another.

7. Use metaphors
Bring in visuals. It’s easier to talk about sensitive issues in the abstract. Allow them to point to visuals or draw pictures to describe how they feel.

8. The power of stories
People tell stories everyday. Encourage them to share stories about the topic they are dealing with as opposed to just “answering the question”. Stories can get deeper and open up new conversations you wouldn’t even think to have had.

9. Be prepared to share yourself
Traditionally moderators are trained to keep themselves out of the conversation, but to encourage sharing on sensitive topics it helps to build rapport and open your personal self to the conversation. Just keep in mind to keep the self-sharing to a minimum so you’re not influencing them, but rather showing that you can relate. Making them feel connected will generate a better conversation.

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