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You Can’t Ask That

by James Needham

5 min read

Unlocking taboo topics in research.

We humans are wonderfully complex creatures. We’re wired to connect with others but also to protect ourselves, avoiding anything that threatens our physical or emotional safety.

So revealing our our deepest thoughts, hopes and fears doesn’t come easily.

It’s hard enough being honest with ourselves let alone a relative stranger asking us sensitive questions for money.

Overlay the social pressures and expectations that cloud emotionally charged topics and you can see how easily a veil is cast over people’s true feelings.

But when approached with empathy, objectivity and care, tricky topics like personal hygiene, sexual health, gender, and violence or social ones like immigration, crime and religion can be delicately unlocked.

Not all research methods are created equal.

Quant research is an emotionally blunt tool – it conveniently rolls up the numbers and provides high-level direction, but not everything that counts can be counted.

There are rivers of human truth flowing beneath that no survey can ever dredge up.

Equally, one-way mirror focus groups are artificial labs that barely scratch the surface of the complexity of the human condition. Zoom groups are convenient but easy places to hide.

So here are three approaches that can help you unlock privileged insight, particularly for sensitive or taboo topics.

Please feel free to reach out with any of your own experiences and thoughts 🙂

#1 Lay your foundations.

Build a cultural understanding of the forces at play.

Take a peek into the windows of culture – listen to what social and support groups and websites are talking about.

Explore the world of memes and creative campaigns and how people interact and respond. What are they fighting for? What are they defending?

Meet with a university professor one day, then watch a comedian the next.

Their jokes often reflect our deepest social tensions and taboos.

What celebrities and influencers are shaping the public discourse and how? What podcasts are there and what are they dissecting?

Take your earphones out and sit in cafes, pubs and trains. Walk the streets where the issue is most prevalent and feel the vibrations.

In short, wrap yourself in diverse points of view.

Listen to what’s being said but more importantly what isn’t and why? Capture and codify it. This provides you with some clues to work with.

Now you have the foundations, you’re ready to engage more meaningfully with the people and groups closest to the topic.

#2 Find the tribes.

I’m not anti-focus group but when it comes to tricky or taboo issues, there are a few things to consider.

Consider meeting with a group of close friends* in a place they feel most comfortable. It might be their home, a local park or a discrete café. The group psychology of a close-knit group of friends will often take you to much deeper places when there’s established trust.

Build rapport early. Be a curious human being not a trained moderator.

Establish yourself as a novice, a fish out of water that’s trying to understand the topic better and watch them take you under their wing. You are merely an observer. Like Louis Theroux – a blank canvas onto which they can project their thoughts and feelings. There’s power in neutrality and proclaimed ignorance – it unlocks secrets.

It’s so rare people feel truly listened to. Give them your unwavering and non-judgmental attention. This is where the magic unfolds.

*Note: Some topics are best covered with private in-depth discussions. Some recent work on crime and safety was conducted in a quiet corner of a public library as issues with the law between friends meant group discussion was not possible.

#3 Open Inner Space

Where appropriate, help people contextualise their own feelings by giving them a simple exercise to think about before you meet them.

Personify the issue or feelings around it – how does it show up for them as a character, a song or a movie? Let them create a collage of images to define how it makes them feel and share? Let them bring this to your chat and openly explore.

This creates an emotional anchor to help ground their feelings. Revisiting this work at the end of the chat can also yield insight – what has changed? In the fullness of the conversation, would you add or take anything away from it? Why?

Once you’re in synthesis mode, gather all these exercises and stick them on your wall. Usual Suspects style, look for patterns – common language, motifs, images, tones, and colours.

This can be powerful. You’re looking into people’s inner worlds and seeing things no set of questions could ever elicit. Treat it with the respect and confidentiality it deserves.

A few final thoughts…

Count to five in your head and remember silence is your friend.

Leaving healthy pauses opens space for people to dive beneath the surface layer of conversation and consider deeper thoughts and feelings. Let the pauses happen naturally and watch the conversation become all the richer for it.

Never be afraid to bring a little bit of light humour to the topic, it’s disarming and helps people access other parts of their memory and imagination that serious conversations close down on.

Finally, it’s not always what people say, it’s how they behave that reveals hidden truths. Posture, eye movement, fidgeting, language tone, cadence and choice, are all clues…

Good luck, these are special opportunities to bring a new understanding of an issue to a wider audience, helping reshape the discourse around it.

See you in the field.

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James Needham

→ Over 20 years experience across APAC and the UK helping redefine some of the world’s most iconic and effective brands, and leading complex research and segmentation projects from Budget Direct, Big4, Crime Stoppers, RACV and CommBank.

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