Listening Research Participants 1200

Are we hearing but not listening?

Tamsin Spencer

Tamsin Spencer

Acacia Avenue

Tamsin joined Acacia Avenue in 2015 from The Source where she started her research career. As a sociology graduate from Bath Spa University, Tamsin’s fascination with human behaviour, attitudes and choices greatly impacted on her interests and, subsequently, career choices.


What can you hear around you right now?

Perhaps it’s colleagues chatting, tube travellers talking, podcasts playing, traffic trundling?

How often do you stop and just listen?

In his recent Campaign article ‘Hear, hear’, Jose Miguel Sokoloff states that there is ‘no shortage of great talkers’ in the advertising industry, all quick to offer their two-pennies worth. But unsurprisingly, fewer are opting to listen first, missing out on the unique and important insight this provides.

When you listen, you establish better connections and build better relationships. J. Miguel Sokoloff, 2017. 'Hear, hear.' Campaign.

This got me thinking, how often do we start by listening? Have we forgotten the power of doing so – the strength in hearing what others have to say before adding our own thoughts?

As researchers, we tend to think of ourselves as pretty good at asking the ‘right’ questions and probably rate our ability to listen highly as well. But interview time constraints and having our end goal for the conversations in the backs of our minds mean that we are also all victims of using the occasional interruptive prompt and prod. Though this is in a bid to lead conversation down the paths we want, rather than letting the participant’s stream of consciousness take its own path, what do we miss?

That is what I like about the world of online ethnography. This forum provides a fascinating space that forces different behaviour in its moderators. We are given the opportunity to hear all that participants have to say, without interruption, whilst still having the opportunity to ask follow-up questions.

When conducting face-to-face methodologies, recruiters are asked to find confident people, happy to hold their own in a group – in other words, extroverts. And to a degree, rightly so. It’s necessary when there is more than one person in the room, right? But it also means that we tend to dismiss the more introverted participant, losing out on the thoughts of a vast proportion of people. Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’ details how society has come to idolise the extrovert over the introvert, and the impact this has on us all.

We make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert ideal so unthinkingly. Some of our greatest ideas, art and inventions came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune into their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there. Susan Cain, 2013. ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. New York: Penguin Books

Online ethnography doesn’t require the same ‘group scenario’ confidence, which allows these participants to offer up their essential opinions and produce broader research findings as a result. Another reason to love them.

So, next time you are writing a brief or proposal, don’t overlook the role of online ethnography, because we learn a lot when we listen first.

Our job is ultimately to talk to people. But let’s listen before we do that. J. Miguel Sokoloff, 2017. 'Hear, hear.' Campaign.

Acacia Avenue is a London-based strategic research consultancy providing the complete research service to clients in the UK and internationally. If you’d like to discuss this subject or to learn more about Acacia Avenue, they’d love to hear from you!

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