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It Ain’t Always That Easy, Kids: Qualitative Interviewing

I’m just going to put this out there: there’s a lot of misconceptions about qualitative (person-centred) versus quantitative (number-centred) methods and some erroneous beliefs that one is better than the other. The reality is any research method can produce useful results if the method is carefully tied to a particular research goal.

For example, if I wanted to know about occupational stressors in the police workplace, I would NEVER send out an anonymous survey. Why?

Reason 1: response rates for surveys are notoriously low

Reason 14: people often dislike communicating sensitive issues through surveys

Reason 57: police officers HATE surveys

Reason 63: officers HATE memos, so they don't even read the memo inviting them to take the survey

Reason 94: the bulk of police officers dealing with sensitive workplace issues would rather set themselves on fire than write down information without 1000% knowing who’s going to see it – not matter how anonymous you say this is.

Reason 143: see all of the above

I have put this to the test by once implementing a totally anonymous survey just asking police officers if they would ever consider using a peer support program and under what circumstances they thought other police officers would be willing to do so. Response rate: something like 35 out of 2500.

A follow up online questionnaire for anyone who wanted to self-report having used a peer support netted a grand total of 0 responses.

When it comes to researching almost any remotely potentially sensitive issue – no matter how benign you think your topic is – I’m going to tell you to go straight to 1-on-1 interviews. I’m also going to tell you to be prepared for:

- Venting

- Crying

- Anger

- Refusal to answer questions

- Emotional lockdown (including responses of ‘I’m fine,’ ‘it’s fine’, ‘everything’s fine’ when you can see it’s not)

- Other signs of distress

- Confidences ranging from 'awful disclosures'* to all manner of personal and workplace issues, from ‘I want to leave’, ‘my boss is a ****head,’ ‘I cry after every shift’, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can work this job and keep my kids in daycare,’ 'my wife is leaving me' and so on.

When I used to teach Intro to EBP at police agencies, I used to talk about Qualitative research, and why it was important, by starting off with the provocative claim, “I make cops cry.” I always expected to get some arm crossing and skeptical eyebrows as subtle feedback, but it didn’t ever happen that I noticed. Instead I got a lot of leaning in, especially from the old timers. I’ll never forget one officer leaning in and saying, “I believe it.”

Here’s why I relate this stuff: people think that qualitative research is ‘easy’ and I’m here to tell you it’s not. I’ve spent the better part of two decades wearing the trauma, the emotions, the frustrations, worries, etc. of a lot of people, from police officers dealing with living through witnessing horrendous things to crime victims who are living through having experienced horrendous things. And these are spaces that you must carefully navigate for your own sake, but more importantly for those who trusted you enough to let you in – whether you are with someone who is discussing their mental health concerns, their father’s cancer diagnosis, their worries about their kids, or how much they hate their job because they’re emotionally fried.

One of the things I’m lucky about is that as a researcher I get the opportunity to sometimes sit back and reflect on my work in the classroom. And, apparently, sometimes I say things that even I think might be worth re-sharing. This past week one of my students, Laura Monteiro**, reminded me of something I said and added her own brilliant insights:

One interesting piece of advice about confronting sensitive situations during an interview was brought up by you, Professor Huey. You stated the following: “listen, validate, and share”. This really resonated with me. I previously thought of qualitative interviews as quite formal; I did not acknowledge that part of the role of the researcher is to not only listen to their participants’ experiences, but to also be there for participants as they relive these experiences, and to validate their thoughts and feelings. I believe that this is harder said than done, and it may take a specific type of researcher to be able to successfully listen, validate, and share.

What does that mean?

Listen: if someone is giving you the gift of their trust and their time, then you owe them the respect of really listening and connecting.

Validate: when someone shares with you some negative emotions, thoughts or experiences, acknowledge you heard them and that you recognize this is tough for them. Although you can share suggestions for support or resources (if you have them handy), don’t try to ‘fix it’ or decide this is a good time to play ‘psychotherapist’ or ‘devil’s advocate.’

Share: people trust you with their stories because they believe you will try to use those stories to improve a situation for others. I have interviewed several hundred people over my career and I can tell you most did not do it for a $10 Walgreen’s card or the 1 in 200 chance for $50 worth of coffee at Tim Horton’s. Research participants are some of the most altruistic people on the planet. Honour that. If you’re going to acquire people’s stories, then use them for the purpose you said you would when you collected them.

* An awful disclosure is when a research participant reveals something that is awful for them. For example, in my victimization work, I've had people reveal sexual abuse or assaults they had never discussed outside of their family. In the policing context, one of the issues I've had to face is the possibility of someone revealing suicidal thoughts or plans. Thank God this hasn't happened, but it's something myself, my research partner's agency and my university's research ethics board had to develop a protocol to potentially address.

**I don't know where Western has been getting their grad students from lately, but we have some fantastic scholars in the bunch. Laura is one of several of them. #luckyme


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