Roberts (2005) stated the case for empathy this way: “Embrace emotion. Feel it yourself, don’t just analyze it in consumers. This is how long-term relationships are made” (p. 190). He believes that we understand people’s emotions and inner workings not by asking about them but by listening. The struggle I often see in social marketing research is over how many questions can be fitted into an interview session or focus group guide. Perhaps we need to start asking a different question in such discussions: why should we ask any questions at all? And if we do ask questions, which ones will create a space in which we can listen, and not simply be doing satisfaction research?
Finding Empathy (by Mistake) in Focus Groups
My colleagues and I were conducting focus groups with eighth-grade girls to develop some perspectives for a sexual health education curriculum. The idea was to get them to tell us about the sexual health topics they would talk about among themselves, or with boys (none!), and to learn the language and approach they use in order to inform the development of our materials. Early on in one of the groups it became obvious to me (but unfortunately not the moderator) that one girl who had initially offered several perspectives on sexual behaviors in school suddenly became very quiet after two other girls dismissed her ideas as not what they had experienced. For the next ten minutes or so, she simply checked out of the session. It was her reaction, more than the conversation that continued, that stuck with me, until finally I asked for the moderator to be called out of the room for a quick consult. (Some people believe that moderators should finish a session before consultants or program developers talk to them, but in my experience, by that point the opportunity to learn something has passed.) I needed to know what was behind this girl’s behavior, and I asked the moderator to go back in, directly ask her what had happened, and try to reengage her in the group process.
The moderator did as I asked, and the girl was quite willing to share what she was thinking: “These girls have no idea what they are in for!” As it turned out, this young woman had met the age eligibility for the focus group but was a ninth grader. And as she quickly began describing the sexual harassment she was suffering as a high school freshman, not only did the other girls in the group become very quiet but so did everyone in the observation room. What became obvious to us was that the eighth-grade girls, who were now at the top of the pyramid in the power structure of their elementary schools, were going to find a whole different reality at the bottom of the high school one. And while the girls in this eighth-grade group could not now imagine themselves being in such a lowly position, it was impossible for the rest of us not to empathize and understand from this one young ninth-grade woman that sexual health education in eighth grade needed to be all about sexual health survival in ninth grade. It remains my firm belief that no probe or survey could have told us that. Indeed, if not for the happenstance that she was inadvertently included in the focus group, we would not have had that experience or insight at all. We nearly engineered insight and empathy out of the process through our recruitment procedures - and how many times is that done around the world in too many research projects?"
From: Lefebvre, R.C (in press). Social marketing and social change: Strategies and tools for improving health, well-being and the environment (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, expected 2013).
Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: HarperCollins.
Roberts, K. (2005). Lovemarks: The future beyond brands. Brooklyn, NY: Powerhouse Books.