Image via The Dutch National Archives
Researchers who interact with and observe human participants are trained to maintain a high level of neutrality when conducting research. They take care to minimize how their own verbal and non-verbal behaviors influence what their participants do or say so they don't affect the data that are collected.
Try as we might, doing so isn't always an easy task, namely because social research isn't completely controllable; it just isn't possible to eliminate every potential element of influence from the equation. Sometimes I think we expect ourselves - or are expected by others (including clients and those without intimate knowledge of social science research methods) - to always be able to turn off certain "undesirable" aspects of our personalities, whether we're out in the field or moderating a focus group, or being a researcher in any other social context.
In a recent blog post, Ruth Stevenson raises the question of whether or not it's OK for a researcher to respond by crying if a participant recounts an emotionally moving personal experience. She acknowledges that it's expected and acceptable for participants to get emotional, but she has a different take on such a thing happening to the researcher.
"Once in my career I have thought I might cry during an interview with a respondent. For like 20 minutes. Which is a lot when there is just the two of you in the room and you are supposed to be asking the questions. Whilst it was a difficult topic it was by no means the most shocking thing anyone had told me, or the most harrowing tale I have heard. Nor was the situation something that I had personally had any experience of. The respondent didn’t cry, they were coping with unfortunate circumstances admirably and spoke about it in a very stoic and matter of fact way. In fact they said speaking to me about it was therapeutic.Empathy and gratitude, as the author notes, are crucial for good social research. Actually, to be a decent human being, you should probably possess these character traits to some extent, but especially if you are a researcher who works with people. You use these aspects of your humanity to show your participants that you value and appreciate them. In short, you are there to make them feel comfortable with you so that they are willing to open up and share.
And yet I spent the majority of the interview trying to hold back the tears. There was just something about how it all came together that pushed my buttons and resulted in a very strong emotional response from me. And it genuinely took me by surprise.
So what do you do when that happens?
Show gratitude that someone has shared their personal stories with you, yes.
You suck it up, that’s what you do. It is not your place to get emotional, it is your place to create a safe and supportive environment for the respondent and make sure they leave the session feeling appreciated. If you cry, you will make the respondent feel bad. You put yourself to the side until afterwards."
Opinions on this topic will diverge depending on one's disciplinary origin (mine is anthropology), practicing philosophy, personal style and approach to research. Personally, I don't disagree that it's our job as researchers to strive for neutrality, prioritize the comfort of participants, and avoid things that make them uneasy. What I disagree with is the overarching idea that researchers must never, under any circumstances, respond emotionally to a participant's word or actions. I also disagree that doing so will always result in upsetting the participant, making them uncomfortable, or ruin the data.In some cases it could actually be beneficial to the participant, the research, or both.
Portraying sincerity and gratefulness while striving for neutrality is quite the balancing act. It's an art, really, that takes good training and lots of practice to master. With sufficient training and experience, we get pretty good at doing this. But no matter how good we become, we should expect that as human beings, we may occasionally react in ways that are less than ideal, especially when researching "tough stuff." Empathy and gratitude and all of the other important attributes of good researchers are a reflection of what it is to be human. Sometimes being human also involves unintentional emotional responses to certain stimuli. As humans, the social and emotional rules that guide our behaviors don't just go away because we're in a research setting.
If a participant relayed a tragic event in such a way as to provoke me to cry, unless I could avoid it, I would feel OK with it as a natural human response. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do about how you feel. You also not be expected to never do something if that thing is a reflection of your personality (e.g. those who are more easily moved by sad or tragic stories) and is also an acceptable response in general.
Researcher reflexivity is crucial to honest, thoughtful research. If this were to happen to me, I would do a number of things. I would decide whether or not to remain in the room or to step outside and collect myself (I would try not to abandon the session); afterward, I would make sure to address the participant and assess his or her comfort level; I would take a pulse on the general level of rapport between us; and if I determined everything were alright and that the participant wanted to continue (he or she would have the option to quit at any time), I would move forward. Later, I would reflect on how the occurrence might have had any influence on the participant, the conversation, my approach, the participant's responses, etc.
I could even throw out that portion of the interview if I absolutely had to, but I wouldn't unless there were a clear indication that the data had been affected. Even then, I would consider the direction of this affect in my decision to keep the data or toss it (e.g., if my crying caused the person to switch topics, but their responses were still useful and relevant, I would probably keep it). Having to throw out data is obviously not ideal, but it's just something that happens sometimes.
Another thing the author mentioned was that she felt like she wanted to cry for 20 minutes. I can imagine that feeling this way may have affected her state of being and potentially how she proceeded with the interview (i.e., her ability to stay focused on the participant, recognize opportunities to probe, etc.) Whether it did or not, it's a highly likely possibility. Since trying to hold back tears would make it difficult to have a clear and focused mind and stay on track, it makes more sense to me just to just go ahead and cry or excuse myself from the room. I also wonder if someone sharing something so shocking or moving would even expect the person with whom they shared it to remain calm and collected.
Now, unlike the author of the original post, I have never actually encountered this situation before. It is often the case that what people say they would do in a hypothetical situation differs from what they would actually do in that situation. So, I can't say for sure that I would react in any specific way, because it really depends on the context. Evaluating the situation on a case-by-case basis seems better than having a blanket rule of never, ever exhibiting an emotional response, because so many factors can come into play (location of interview, interviewer-participant dynamics, mood, life events, etc.)
My point is that I don't think it's a bad thing if the researcher does what's only human by shedding a few tears, or laughing at something that's really funny, or doing any of the other things normal human beings do on occasion, albeit unexpectedly. If you personally wouldn't feel comfortable doing this, then one way to avoid such situations is to do as Ruth suggests in her post, which is to not engage in research topics to which, for whatever reason, you are sensitive. I would also add that it's always better if you can put aside any personal or emotional things that are going on in your life so you are as focused as you can be on the research. If avoiding emotional responses isn't always possible, than neither is ignoring your own life. Just make sure you reflect on how your own issues may potentially affect your research. Or, reschedule your research for after you are feeling better or more relaxed.
H. Russell Bernard's book Research Methods in Anthropology (AltaMira Press 2002) contains a section called "Presentation of Self" (page 219) in the chapter on unstructured and semi-structured interviewing that is relevant here:
"How should you present yourself in an interview? As a friend? As a professional? As someone who is sympathetic or as someone who is nonjudgmental? It depends on the nature of the project. ...cordial-but-nonjudgmental is the way to go.Bernard doesn't specifically address crying, but his larger point points about intuition and treating each discussion as its own unique situation are useful for this discussion. He cites other examples in research where it made sense to simply "be oneself" rather than changing or holding back for the sake of the research, and to evaluate each individual research context to determine how to "self-present". I like this approach because you can never really tell how an interview is going to go or how it might be affected by the participant's mood or your own state of being or the weather. You may decide that holding back your opinions or emotions is the most appropriate response, or you might decide to laugh at a really funny joke, or even to defend yourself against some offensive action or derogatory comment made directly at you.
That's sometimes tough to do. You're interviewing someone on a project about what people can do to help the environment and your respondent says: "All those eco-Nazis want is to make room for more owls. They don't give a damn about real people's jobs." That's when you find out whether you can probe without injecting your feelings into the interview. Professional interviewers...learn to maintain their equilibrium and move on.
Some situations are so painful, however, that it's impossible to maintain a neutral facade. Gene Shelley interviewed 72 people in Atlanta who were HIV-positive (Shelley et al. 1995). Here's a typical comment by one of Shelley's informants: "I have a lot of trouble watching all my friends die. Sometimes my whole body shuts down inside. I don't want to know people who are going to die. Some of my friends, there are three or four people a week in the obits. We all watch the obits."
How would you respond? Do you say: "Uh-huh. Tell me more about that"? Do you let silence take over and force the respondent to go on? Do you say something sympathetic? Shelley reports that she treated each interview as a unique situation and responded as her intuition told her to respond--sometimes more clinically, sometimes less, depending on her judgement of what the respondent needed her to say. Good advice."
There is always going to be some type of potential outside influence on the data collected in social research, so all we can do is do our best to "maintain equilibrium." Addressing your presence rather than ignoring it is the key. Being yourself, maintaining high standards, and making your participants comfortable are also important. Researchers spend a lot of time talking about respecting the rights and humanity of our participants and remaining non-judgmental toward them, no matter who they are or what they say or do. Why then can we not accept that researchers are human beings, too, and that even the most skilled ones might occasionally show it?
If you tend to be more sensitive to certain stimuli, you shouldn't be expected to change who you are or hold back your emotions, and you shouldn't be made to feel ashamed if you don't. In tandem with empathy, sensitivity can actually be a really useful trait to have when interacting with other people and observing their behaviors or environments, since you pick up on things that others do not. I think it's actually quite an undervalued characteristic. Crying in response to a participant's story could even make them feel more comfortable with you and see you as someone other than a stranger, researcher, or collector of information. As Ruth noted herself, the person she interviewed whose story almost made her cry actually considered it therapeutic to share it. Though such situations can potentially result in positive outcomes, you must also be ready for a potential setback or feeling of discomfort. Either way, we need to remember that not all interviews are going to go 100% to plan, even if they are highly structured. That's just the nature of human interaction.
Those of us who are exposed to the infinite life experiences of human participants must expect that occasionally we might just hear something so "harrowing" it shakes us at our core. Just as there is an immeasurable variety of people out there, the types and personalities of researchers also run the gamut. Some probably have an easier time than others with limiting their emotions, but others may be more easily moved. Still, those who are great at maintaining composure may find themselves reacting emotionally to an unexpected trigger brought up during a discussion. You never know. It's not a bad thing to strive for neutrality, and in fact it should be the goal, but it's unacceptable to expect everyone to be this way always.