Empathy, Outrospection (and Qual): an RSA Animate

Here’s an RSA Animate talk (see http://www.theRSA.org for more) from last year on the importance of empathy. As Krznaric sees it, more widespread practice at empathy – particularly cognitive empathy, where you fully step into another person’s shoes and see things as they see them – could revolutionise how we think about our lives and change the decisions we take. He cites the abolition of slavery as an advance that happened as a result of people first being curious about, then exploring the perspective of the slave. Over decades, the power of this insight came to erode the many barriers to doing anything about it.

Qualitative research is not about to abolish suffering in the world, but it is basically a bespoke empathy service. It helps those commissioning research get into the shoes of the people they need to understand, whether it is citizens, shoppers, audiences or whatever. The best qual research brings to life people that had previously just been numbers on a page.

However, qualitative researchers cannot “deliver” empathy by simply “showing people” to our clients. The key is about getting inside their heads, so that the qual researcher can see things as they do and explain their perspectives to others. Observing people is one thing we do to help us get that perspective – but it is not an end in itself. Beware the client who feels she has ‘got’ her audience by watching the discussion groups or even poring over ethnography footage. It is the deeper explanation of what is going on that really matters – the sifting and sense-making, the joining of the dots, remembering that a lot of the most important dots are not immediately visible. That takes deep analysis followed by clear exposition from an empathic qual researcher.

Coincidentally, Krznaric cites George Orwell‘s Down And Out In Paris And London as an “empathy adventure” – see my post from earlier this week on that topic: Tips From An Even Better Writer Than Joey Barton. Little known to the outside world, we qualitative researchers go on mini empathy adventures every week. I can recommend it.

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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