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How to Navigate Sensitive Qualitative Interviews

The role of qualitative methods in healthcare market research is growing as more cross-industry clients experience first-hand the benefits of knowing not only the “how” or the “what” but also the “why”. KJT continues to believe that the need for exceptional qualitative research in healthcare will grow as transition into a post-pandemic landscape evolves to a new reality.

At the forefront of qualitative data collection tools is the One-on-One Interview or In-Depth Interview (IDI) Despite sounding and (when done correctly) seeming simple, IDIs are one of the most challenging tools to do well. To be successful, IDIs require skilled and experienced moderators who can capture rich, actionable insights that go beyond the surface and investigate how respondents experience and perceive a range of topics.

By its very nature, healthcare market research often requires moderators to explore the most sensitive aspects of respondents’ lives despite only meeting them five minutes earlier. Sensitive interviews in healthcare can range from asking physicians about situations where they lost patients to discussing respondents’ terminal illnesses. IDIs that cover sensitive topics present challenges for respondents and moderators – not least of which is the emotional toll it can take on both parties.

That is why the prospect of conducting interviews on sensitive topics is often the most daunting task for early-career moderators. Most need time to develop their maturity and skillset to deal with the complexity of these types of interviews.

As a moderator, you are aware of your responsibility to the respondent. Your role is to ensure that respondents feel safe and comfortable when participating in market research. On the flip side, you also have a responsibility to your client to ensure the data captured helps answer the research questions. Great moderators are those who can balance these two responsibilities effectively and efficiently.

Given the importance of qualitative interviewing in the future of healthcare market research, KJT’s qualitative research team suggests these top 6 tips conducting sensitive interviews appropriately and successfully.

These tips are based on our experience as qualitative researchers and moderators to help navigate sensitive qualitative interviews:

  1. Preparation: Moderators need to prepare before the interviews start. Fully understanding the topics you are discussing will enhance moderator confidence, which will be felt by the respondent and putt them at ease. It is also necessary to know the respondent before the interview – reviewing all relevant screening criteria to mitigate the risk of errors or issues with interview flow.
  2. Be Upfront and Honest: You must ensure the respondent understands the topics you will be covering, that they might find them sensitive and that there is no obligation to answer questions that make them uncomfortable. The last thing you want to do is surprise or shock respondents with your line of questioning. It will also allow the respondent to verbalize any questions or concerns they might have before starting the interview.
  3. Build Genuine Rapport: What makes a good moderator great is their ability to develop rapport with respondents quickly. What makes a great moderator excellent is their ability to do this with sincerity. Rapport is key to putting respondents at ease and allowing them to open up to someone who is a stranger. When discussing sensitive issues, respondents tend to be even more guarded and will recognize insincerity and close off a lot easier than they might otherwise.
  4. Empathy, Respect, and Kindness: Recognizing, understanding, and sharing respondent feelings is vital when dealing with sensitive topics. Do not be afraid to share some of your experiences, if relevant, to make it clear that you hear the respondent and recognize the challenges or issues they face. Remember to look for changes in tone that might indicate the respondent is uncomfortable and check in to ensure they are ok to continue with the line of questioning.
  5. Verbalize Your Gratitude: Acknowledging and thanking respondents when they have shared something difficult, even in the middle of the interview, is a vital step in making respondents comfortable, respected, and heard.
  6. Defer Some Control to the Respondent: In normal circumstances, keeping control is one of the moderator’s top priorities; however, in sensitive interviews, it is helpful to relinquish some control. If it becomes clear the respondent is uncomfortable or becoming overwhelmed by the questions, you must be willing to improvise and, if required, move along. Communicate effectively and efficiently with the respondent during this process to ensure they know what you are doing.

Navigating sensitive qualitative interviews is challenging. It is appropriate for moderators to feel nervous, and, in many ways, it is a good thing. There is no substitute for skill and experience; however, following these six tips will set you up for success – not only in data collection but also in terms of ensuring a positive and rewarding experience for the respondent.

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