A group of women sitting around a table talking

Thomas Sluiter, of As We Are Research, shares a case study about his successful approach to carrying out research with sensitive audiences.

How it started

Do you work with sensitive audiences?

A few years ago, a friend of mine asked if I worked with sensitive audiences. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I have been doing qualitative research for many years, including research with patients with chronic illnesses. I am also trained as an anthropologist. And anthropologists typically participate in people’s daily lives to make sense of their world. Being sensitive is my starting point. I need to be respectful, transparent, and non-intrusive, while also being curious and engaging. Trying to give people the space to explore thoughts and feelings without judgement.

"I suppose so", I said modestly. My friend was convinced I would be a good candidate to take on the research project she was hoping to run. So I was keen to explore how I could be of help. But what was the brief exactly?

The brief – evaluate a self-protection program

I was asked to evaluate a self-protection program for women who had experienced violence, abuse and trauma. Many of the participants also had anxiety-related mental health issues. The age of the participants ranged from 16 to 96 years.

A man in a woman’s world

Initially, I felt it was an intimidating task for a man to take on and I questioned if participants would feel safe enough around me. My friend reassured me: “You will be fine. They are nice people.” This reassured me that I would be fine, provided we chose a suitable research method and established a safe environment. So what did we do and what did we learn?

Carrying out the research

The starting point – focus on the program

We were clear that the goal was to evaluate the program and not so much the participants’ experiences of trauma. At the same time, we also knew that it would be hard to totally avoid talking about their lived experiences. To understand the impact of the program we could not avoid talking about why they joined the program in the first place. We had to learn what they hoped to get out of it and how it had helped them in their lives. So how did we keep the conversations as trauma-free as possible?

A safe space with familiar faces

We decided to run focus groups with participants at a familiar location, either where the program took place or a nice local tearoom. One reason we chose focus groups was to make sure that the participants felt secure amongst a group of peers, as opposed to potentially more intimidating one-on-one interviews.

The research was also endorsed by community leaders who worked directly with the participants, and we made sure that someone familiar from the community groups was present.

Research ethics

It is the role of a researcher to protect the privacy of participants and make it clear that participation is voluntary at all times. In this case, we put extra care into the introduction of the study, stressing that each experience is unique to them and no one had to share anything if they didn’t want to. We highlighted that participants are always in control and can leave the focus group at any time, for any reason.

Indirect options to explore big issues

We also needed to respect the importance of a good evaluation to help improve the program and to secure funds for the future. To address bigger topics around how the program had impacted the participants’ lives, we decided to use a photo-elicitation exercise.

We collated picture cards with real photos of unrelated scenes. We selected a diverse range of photos that we felt could represent a wide range of scenarios and emotions related to the program. The idea here was for participants to select pictures that represent the impact the program had on their lives, both good and bad. The pictures were then used as conversation starters about the program. This way, participants could describe their experience in a metaphorical sense or revert to real stories.

Finally, we also had a more concrete exercise with a range of word cards with desired outcomes. The group placed the cards on an axis from not achieved to achieved. This helped to visualise how well the program delivered on the desired outcomes.

What we learned

The benefits of the right approach

The approach we took proved to be the right one. It gave us the insights and stories needed for the evaluation. But perhaps more importantly, it was an overall pleasant experience for the participants, the community groups, the client and for me as a researcher. The group sessions led to lively conversations, a sense of validation, and gave respect to each participant’s experiences. The participants valued the research, and commented that it felt like a therapeutic part of the program.

The photo-elicitation exercise was very insightful and worked a treat for most participants. Although the somewhat abstract nature of the exercise did not suit everyone, it helped to bring out stories and experiences that could be shared without trauma.

Fun and tears go hand in hand

One of the most striking things for me was that we had lots of fun during the sessions. It struck me how lightheartedness and joy could go hand in hand with tears and trauma.

The advantage of a good program

I was also blessed by the fact that the program greatly helped the participants get on with their lives. They had gained confidence and felt equipped to take part in the world again. I was essentially the recipient of praise for a life-changing program. The engagement was high. Let’s call it the privilege of researching something impactful.

Sensitive audiences – so what is the difference?

The main lesson I learned was that sensitive audiences, like any audience, are people like you and me. With a respectful approach, there is no distinct difference to working with other participants. We enjoyed our coffees, our cakes, and the opportunity to reflect on the program. There was appreciation, laughter, a good atmosphere. And there were serious things to talk about, reflections on traumatic events, and tears. But above all, the interactions felt similar to what I would expect in research about less trivial issues.

So, if you ever get asked whether you can work with sensitive audiences, perhaps ask yourself: how respectfully do I work with people in general?

About the author

Thomas Sluiter is an independent research professional who supports the Information Access Group with understanding the needs and desires of our target audiences. Thomas’s collaborative approach allows us to put the needs of our audiences central to our content development. You can learn more about his approach on the As We Are Research website. You can also reach out to Thomas on his LinkedIn page.