Can You Hear Me Now? Listening in Qualitative Research

Somewhere back in school Carl RogersOn Becoming a Person was required reading.  Maybe because of the title – and my life-long goal to become “a person” – or maybe because there is something endearing about Carl Rogers himself, whatever the reason this is one of the few books I have held on to for these many years.  The binding of my 1961 paperback edition has fallen apart and only a rubber band keeps the pages bound in some sense of order.

Anyone familiar with Rogers knows that he is considered the father of client-centered therapy.  Rogers took a different approach to therapy from his colleagues of the day, one that was open, flexible, and empowered the client to determine his/her own therapeutic course.  This was a fairly radical approach at the time and even now there are those who dispute Rogers’ techniques.  Admittedly a client-centered session can be difficult to watch, as his interview in 1965 with Gloria illustrates.

The Rogers-Gloria interview is an example of Rogers’ method of using  long silences pierced by a few quiet words of encouragement, highlighting a key component to client-centered therapy –  listening.  Rogers believed that a true understanding of an individual, and the ability to form a meaningful client-therapist relationship, is fostered when we use listening to “see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about.”

I have been thinking about Rogers the past couple of weeks while working with groups of social scientists.  It began with two face-to-face group discussions followed the next week by two online group discussions (“bulletin boards”).    What struck me was the obvious difference in input from the two modes.  In the traditional focus group format, both groups of sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like were orderly and polite and contributed important information.  Yet there was a noticeable reluctance to disagree or even argue the issues in this closed-room, eyeball-to-eyeball conversation.  In sharp contrast, the bulletin board discussions were vibrant and engaged and filled with plenty of friendly disagreements that added to an already rich volume of insights on the issues.

I think the difference I experienced in these two modes has as much to do with listening as anything else.  The social scientists in the traditional focus groups had just as much knowledge and insights to share as their counterparts in the bulletin boards, but was anyone listening?  Did the focus group participants sitting around the conference table believe that anyone was truly listening to what they had to say (or wanted to say)?  Did anyone else really care about what was on their minds?  Those who were clearly stifling comments may have asked themselves these same questions and decided the answer was “no.”

The bulletin boards, however, appeared to free social scientists from the confines of eyeball scrutiny and unleashed them to speak openly and in a fully articulated manner.  As I read their very long responses to my (and others’) questions I sensed their exuberance in the idea that someone was actually listening to what they had to say.  Each one had their own personal platform from which to sermon, pontificate, or just express a point of view.  And we were all listening.

Rogers states that, “a listening, empathic approach leads to improved communication, to greater acceptance of others and by others, and to attitudes which are more positive and more problem-solving in nature.”  Maybe those long dreaded silences are not so bad after all, and maybe it is just what we need more of in our face-to-face group discussions.

5 comments

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head… “The bulletin boards appeared to free social scientists from the confines of eyeball scrutiny and unleashed them to speak openly and in a fully articulated manner”.

    Another major factor is time. When we get a group of people together everyone is conscious of the limited time – they either don’t want to take up too much time ‘hogging the floor’ and/ or the moderator is conscious of getting through what needs to be discussed. In an online asynchronous environment of a bulletin board this is no longer a problem. By ‘speaking’ their mind no one is taking time away from anyone else. It levels the playing field and ensures everyone can be listened to equally.

  2. Is is odd that face-to-face listening might have less impact than online listening?

    Did the face-to-face session have a moderator who wasn’t so good at showing they were listening?

    Or did the participants NOT CARE that she/he was listening?

    Perhaps the Bulletin Board encouraged more real discussion because participants were listening to each other and responding?

    Who do we want to be heard by? The company/organisation that is sponsoring the research, or our peers?

    Face to face discussions can be MUCH more than listening exercises. They can include workshop-type activities that generate discussion and strong engagements, E.g. ask participants to outline (and defend) alternate views; or to organise a list and defend their choices, etc, etc.

    If face to face doesn’t generate strong interaction, it’s not just about the listening, it is also about what you asked participants to do in the time you had them in the room.

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