Better Research Through Car Pooling

by Jeff Hirsch

I’m not sure of the inspiration, but the other day I flashed back to when my kids were younger, thinking about all that driving I used to do to and from school, soccer, play dates, ballet, birthday parties, music lessons and everywhere else.

There was plenty of good conversation when I was with each of them one-on-one, but I found that if I really wanted to find out what was going on with my kids, all I had to do was put them in a car with one or two of their good friends, drive and listen.

Despite Dad in the front seat, they escaped into their own backseat world, deeply engaged in conversation, oblivious to their surroundings. Was it because they trusted me so much in front of their friends? Hardly. If I dared an attempt to join the conversation, my older daughter, in particular, would be quick to tell me how much I was embarrassing her. Then, when left alone again, they would quickly go back to talking to each other about feelings and experiences they would never relate to me if I had asked about them directly.

I find precisely the same phenomenon to hold true in qualitative research. Facilitators can ask questions directly, but we’ll likely get the least painful and thought inducing answers the first time around. We can probe and probe and maybe get a bit further, but the question and answer format has its limitations.

“How was school today?” “Fine.”

The Right Brain Studio has had great success in one-on-one settings leveraging therapy-like methods and laddering techniques (it’s easier with strangers than your own kids), but group dynamics are different. Here, it’s best to emulate the car pool. Get out of the way and let them talk.

It’s not just creative exercises that will get them talking, oblivious to the fact that they’re all strangers and there’s a moderator with a hidden or not so hidden agenda in the room. Group exercises are the key, shared experiences that get them talking and working with each other.

I’m sure I’m not the only parent (the infamous Tiger Mom aside) who sometimes wanted to “control” his kids at times. Of course we want them to “be themselves,” but at the same time, we want to teach them good manners and respect for others. In research, we don’t want to teach our respondents anything. It’s quite the other way around. However, like meddling, controlling overly involved parents, exerting too much “control” over respondents and the research process can serve to encourage dysfunction, inhibit respondents and quash honest communication.

Better to let things flow. The real goal of any facilitator is to be the proverbial “fly on the wall.” If they don’t even think about you being there, your chances of listening in on some really meaningful conversation rise significantly.

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