Recently I flew to NY on a business trip. On the way there, I sat next to a black man in his 30s who holds a very senior brand manager position for a major packed goods company. We were talking about Uber and I asked if he used the service in Manhattan. He said sometimes, but often they didn’t stop for him because he’s black or, if he was going to a certain neighborhood, they might stop the car and make him get out because they were afraid to go to his destination. He’s not alone: here’s another recent article talking about the same thing with a NYC cabbie.
Coming home from this same trip, I was seated next to a woman and another black man. I was listening to them talk, and the man was explaining to this woman what he has to tell his child in order to keep that child safe from the police. He mentioned the book, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I “interrupted” to ask him to repeat the title of this book so I could buy it (which I did).
We all got to talking, and I said that as much as I try, I cannot exactly understand what is like to be black in America today. He insisted that I could and I continued to disagree; while I can study the subject, talk with friends and others who have these experiences, they are not my life experiences – and more importantly, I don’t see these experiences on a daily basis so it’s impossible to “remotely immerse” myself in them. I should, with study and openness, get very close, but I cannot walk in those shoes. (A man can never really know what it is like to be 9-months pregnant…)
Whether you agree with me or not, I think it’s fair to say that as a qualitative researcher, I must come to the table knowing what my filters are and not be afraid to say “I don’t know and I don’t want to assume to know, so please tell me more.”
We have techniques for this in some cases. Take a new technology, for example: we often will ask the participants to tell us how they’d explain this new product/service to an older relative in a way that person would understand. Getting at their language helps the client/agency to know how best to explain the product to an audience and/or to understand what about the product is understood/misunderstood.
Empathy means we are relating to who we are connecting with. In short, it means “I get you.” But until we realize we have biases (aka our world view), and we acknowledge where they might limit us, we cannot open ourselves up to hear and learn from others.
Symbols and stereotypes are the enemy of empathy. Often imbued with great meaning, they can be explained differently by different groups. The recent issue in S. Carolina over the Confederate flag is a perfect example of this. Many well-meaning and caring white people never fully understood that this flag meant suppression and slavery to their black neighbors – and due to a tragedy, had their eyes opened to the hurt this symbol of their heritage meant to others. With this new understanding, change was possible.
Creating the right environment in qualitative marketing research enhances human connection and the potential for empathy. Simple things like how a room is set up to speak with participants is critical. A couple of months ago I was talking with people who use a product often associated with not taking good care of themselves; they felt ashamed to need this product. I don’t use this product, but by setting up the room with comfortable chairs and no table between us, I was able to come over and sit next to someone, even holding their hand when needed, so they could tell me their story. I can’t recall the last time I learned as much during sessions because somehow they were comfortable enough to share with me, and I trusted my instincts to know what they needed to help me learn from them. Could I fully empathize? No – but I could hear their issues and the pain, and be their advocate in the marketing and communication development process (via my reporting and subsequent client interaction).
All qualitative researchers should have outstanding empathy skills. Over time, life helps us to get better at it. Yet, we must be mindful of our limitations or we risk disrespecting those who we’re trying to learn from. “I hear you” vs. “I hear what I understood you to say” are different – and I for one work very hard to get as close to “I hear you” as I can. And my life is richer for it!