Lived experiences in research – opportunities and problems

Ruth Sayers, Senior Researcher

Ruth Sayers, Senior Researcher

The roles of a therapist and a research interviewer have different goals, but both involve personal conversations. And both challenge us to think about how we use our lived experience to facilitate the conversation, how it may affect what is said to us and how we interpret that.

The researcher is often described as having power in an interview situation – she sets the agenda and guides the conversation, and may be perceived as having a more powerful status than the interviewee. But the interviewee also holds substantial power – he has information that researchers want access to, and is only likely to reveal it fully when he feels comfortable that the researcher is a safe pair of ears. The interviewer therefore aims to create a conversation where the interviewee will be as open as possible. This can include being aware of and minimising the perceived differences in power held and using shared experiences to build rapport.

Carrying out interviews or focus groups to collect data for research has a very different purpose to talking therapy; but the two processes have some similarities. In both the ‘listener’ must aim to create a safe enough space for the ‘talker’ to be authentic, thoughtful, and to reach and communicate insights. Creating rapport, or therapeutic alliance, is key to both processes. This is most likely to develop when two people meet in a confidential setting as authentic individuals, and the talker trusts the listener sufficiently to feel he is being heard and understood.

In creating a safe space as interviewers we can make use of all our ‘lived experience’. Some of our life experiences will give us commonality with the speaker, or interviewee – perhaps having experience of dealing with mental health problems, of being a parent, or being male or raised in a minority culture.

As researchers we need to be awake to how these experiences impact on our own world view. They may provide a route to creating rapport and empathy between us as ‘listeners’ and the ‘talkers’. But we should be equally aware of those experiences which may make us see the world differently from the interviewee. Perhaps having a mental health diagnosis which is different from the interviewee’s, or being from a different age cohort, or interviewing women about pregnancy if not a parent oneself. Even if we have had very similar experiences to the interviewee, we are likely to have interpreted them differently, in line with our own values and world view.

Being aware of the space between our own self and our own interpretations and the interviewee’s interpretations, sense of self, and world view, is vital in making sense of what the person says. We need to step out of our own interpretations and be willing to try to see the world from the other person’s perspective – including when they conflict with our fundamental values. Such awareness of how we, as the ‘listener’ interact with the experiences and accounts of the ‘speaker’ or interviewee are also crucial to the work of a therapist. I feel that my own experiences of having been in therapy, as well as having had some training in counselling, are of use to me during the interview process.

The interviewee is likely to feel comfortable giving opinions and describing feeling he feels are acceptable to the interviewer. But no interviewer is a blank canvas. We display gender, age, ethnicity, social background without intention.  We may also volunteer information about ourselves, such as our mental health history. All these may affect the responses we get during an interview, and we need to make decisions about how to deal with these – both at the time, and when analysing the data afterwards. For example, how should we respond if someone makes a racist remark during an interview? Someone may be more likely to think that is acceptable when they are talking to me as a white person than when talking to someone from a visible ethnic minority. Similarly a male interviewee may be less likely to make sexist remarks in an interview with me as an older female interviewer than if I were male, but I may also be more attuned to pick up on sexist attitudes than a male interviewer. I must be aware of how these might affect how I try to build rapport and respond to the interviewee and how I analyse the resulting data.

As interviewers we should therefore be aware, just as therapists are trained to be aware, of how our life experience has shaped us: our likes, dislikes, prejudices, judgements, inclinations, hopes, fears. And then be conscious of the impact of these on the interview process, and therefore of the data we collect. The same applies to how we interpret data and the final results of research. Close listening can lead us to places we may be uncomfortable in, or unwilling to go. The interview context may not allow us to challenge or discuss the person’s attitudes. Compassionate listening is vital, as it is during the therapeutic process.

A researcher who fails to acknowledge how the speaker impacts on them as a listener is gathering data blindly, as unacknowledged judgements and beliefs from their own lived experience will influence and probably contaminate the data they are collecting. Those using lived experiences of mental health problems or of using psychiatric services, or any other distressing experience, may need extra support to manage the specific challenges that a peer researcher methodology can throw up. However, all researchers need to reflect on how their own status and the total of their life experiences will always influence their work.