Peter Campion is a principle at Incite. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “It’s a conversation, not an interview.”

“I understand.”

“That sounds frustrating.”

“Tell me more about how that made you feel.”

A selection of the phrases I find myself saying in various groups, in-depth interviews and forums across a myriad of projects. As a qualitative researcher, our ability to empathize is core to what we do. The people we speak to need to feel that their stories are heard, understood and valued.

But it’s not always so easy; at times you catch yourself saying “I understand” and think – do I really understand what they’re going through? Even when discussing the most trivial topics, people can reveal incredibly personal truths – be it financial troubles, health issues, even bereavement. But because they’re speaking to a moderator, they can feel vulnerable, and the act of divulging that information can make them retreat from other topics.

In these situations, we as researchers must live up to our responsibility to ensure participants feel comfortable and are treated as humans rather than just a source of insight. As a result, it’s easy in these circumstances to avoid digging deeper through fear of creating an uncomfortable environment for them.

The pandemic has helped researchers build better conversations.

Strangely – that’s where the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for us to better connect with those we talk to; helping us to have conversations with people rather than interviews with participants.

First, it’s created common ground. While we don’t all have the same experiences from the last few years, we are united by this unique time in history. I’ve found this has opened topics of conversation that in normal times we may not have reached as easily. For instance, chatting about the frustrations of cancelled weddings, ho...