Is empathy necessary to be a good researcher? I’d always assumed so – but after attending the AQR debate “Empathy – Brilliant or Bullsh#t?” I’m not so sure.
I’d always conflated empathy with understanding. That an ability to sense other people’s emotions and the ability to imagine what people are thinking or feeling was a necessary part of the job. Empathy – as industry veteran Peter Totman put it – is “research’s ultimate aspiration.” A glimpse into the life of someone very different to us can act as a shortcut to an insight.
The “bullsh#t” referenced in the event’s title is all about overclaim. Claiming to understand someone’s lived experience – the whole person – from an interview is a stretch. Some interactions are – as Stephen Lacey pointed out – “dropping into do an hour long interview then getting a taxi to the Malmaison”. The “over-agenda’d” world of so much research means long discussion guides come first, and spontaneity and human connection come a distant second.
Ethnographer Becky Rowe suggested it is patronising to assume we can empathise with – for example – an asylum seeker who has left all they know to travel for 1000s of miles and live in limbo, awaiting judgement on their leave to remain.
Nor is it particularly advantageous. In her view many of the research topics her team undertakes are so challenging (e.g. survivors of abuse, prisoners or those living in asylum hotels) she doesn’t want her team to carry around the weight of lived experience of every person they meet.
Indeed, when you speak to people in vulnerable situations they often do not want the trauma of retelling their experience. They’re not after empathy – they want research to act as lever of change. Committing to good quality evidence, and being as objective as possible, is the best thing you can do for them. Empathy often comes with bias.
So why do researchers revel in the notion? Being empathetic casts the researcher in a positive light. Our unique talent is the bridge to understanding. It elevates us, making us the heroes.
Rapport vs. empathy
Inevitably, the debate led us into semantics. Ultimately, it is rapport that we need: warm neutrality. A place where participants feel at peace with our presence. Where the researcher is not striving to feel what participants feel.
3 pragmatic tips to improve our daily practice
Focus on mindsets: psychotherapist Paul Arnold brought us back to making people comfortable to enable moments of connection. Allow yourself time. Breathe.
Approach it like international research: if you’re investigating people with backgrounds radically different to your own, Stephen Lacey suggested approaching it like international research. Acknowledge your lack of cultural understanding and take the advice of experts to help you explore more deeply. He recommends starting projects with expert interviews to increase his understanding of the audience and help formulate good questions. You can also bring in experts at the analysis stage to help validate interpretations.
Diversity of teams not matching: the notion of “matching” moderators to participants – so vegetarians interview vegetarians for example – was scorned. A moderator may have a physical disability for example, but does that automatically make them better able to connect with someone with a visual impairment? Many experiences do not match over. We contain multitudes. Instead, focus on having diverse teams with varied perspectives and triangulate their views.
Thanks to the AQR and to all the contributors.