when hate speech enters a research session

newsletter #36 | 15-May-2018

Here’s a question related to some other conversations I’ve seen online: what do you do when you’re conducting research and the participant speaks in a biased or dismissive manner? This especially hits hard when the researcher is a member of the “dismissed” group, and doubly hard if the participant aims vitriol directly at the researcher. In the wash of emotional reaction, it’s difficult to remain “professional.” In this essay, I’ll explore some ways to get through your reaction, say the “professional” thing (which may surprise you), and still respect yourself as a human. There are so many ways to react and act. It depends upon you and your context and your goals.  In this conversation below, we narrow the focus to the development or application of empathy, and there are some reassuringly clear answers.

Q: (J.Loh) Is it possible to forgive people without having empathy for them?

Note: (Indi) I am initially assuming “cognitive empathy” as the working definition of “empathy,” where you take the other person’s perspective by first trying to understand what’s going through their mind.

A: (Indi) I think I’d need more context for your question. For example, in the context of being a driver, I can forgive someone for cutting in front of me on the freeway without needing to understand their state of mind. There’s also the context of my thinking style. I can forgive if I’m a type of driver who thinks “this is all a big dance with complicated choreography.” But if I’m a different type of driver, like “I need to get ahead of you, cuz this is a game I want to win,” then forgiveness for the driver cutting in won’t come, and much fist-shaking, bird-flying, and expletive-yelling ensues within the car. Note that the thinking-style of the two drivers doesn’t necessarily indicate their ability to develop empathy. It’s just a way of approaching the task of driving on that particular day.

I think in general, without context, my answer would be that the ability to forgive depends on the thinking-style of the person in their particular context. (I sound like such a consultant.)

J.Loh: Okay so the question then is more philosophical. How do you forgive if you discover in conversation that a user research participant has said or done something that is utterly reprehensible to your own belief system? It’s crucial that participants remain focused on the task and have the security and freedom to articulate their thoughts as they go through the product. However, I have noticed that some people use this product I’m testing as a platform to share views that can be interpreted as offensive and/or hostile. I interpret them that way. You’ve said that empathy is not required to forgive, but what if the situation in question is shockingly disturbing? In my situation, I’ve been advised to “suck it up” regardless of my personal ideology and complete the task at hand. Thoughts?

Note: (Indi) This context is user research, not problem space research, so you may not be conducting an empathetic listening session. User research is more about probing and observation, but there is definitely a requirement for listening skills and also building of cognitive empathy as the session proceeds.

Indi: Ah, there’s the context–a user research session! I think maybe you mean “accept” or “respect” when you say “forgive?” There are definitely situations where you cannot forgive someone. Maybe by those other words, “accept” or “respect,” you are wondering whether you should be expected to employ cognitive empathy to achieve acceptance or respect for the person. The answer here is no.

The mechanics of cognitive empathy require that, before employing it, you must develop a deep understanding of the person’s underlying reasoning and the sources of their beliefs. Without doing this first, you cannot wield cognitive empathy. It’s like trying to use a toaster without electricity. It won’t work. In your user research situation, it’s possible you cannot get at the person’s underlying reasoning and sources of their beliefs (via a listening session) because there’s no time, no structure to do it, or they don’t trust you enough to talk about these deeper things. So no, don’t reach for cognitive empathy; it’s a tool with no power if you cannot do a listening session.

(Quite likely I have assumed “cognitive empathy” by mistake. Let me try another angle.)

There is emotional empathy, but I don’t think you can wield that in this situation, either. Emotional empathy is being with the person in their emotional process—meaning you need to recognize when an emotional process is going on for that person, then show them you are listening and want to hear all that they have to tell you until they feel satisfied and can move past their emotion. Researchers and therapists (and friends!) use emotional empathy to build rapport, so the other person feels trust and security to explore deeper reasoning & reactions.

In the case of a typical user research participant, the emotional reactions they may have during a session include confusion and frustration at the product or the researcher’s questions. You know how to do emotional support for confusion or frustration at the product or the question. However, if the participant has an emotional reaction at the researcher(s), other participants, or other people on the product platform, whether it’s rage or inappropriate sexual advances or spewing of bias, then let your alarm blare! You aren’t equipped or required to perform emotional empathy to support them through emotion (especially hateful emotion) about the people involved in the session or the platform. The only thing you can try is to re-direct their attention back to the product being tested and the task at hand. Go ahead and use your facial expression to let them know you’re feeling disturbed at their outburst, because it’s outside the job you’re paying them to do. For a usability test, this is a transgression. You are the professional who hired them, so you can hold your body upright and call them on this with your eyes. If they refuse to be redirected and continue their emotional process, then I would say, “Well, we have enough now; this session is over. Thank you. Here is your stipend.”

If your client or manager insists you should have continued, tell them that the participant went way off script and refused to return to the test at hand. No valid data was forthcoming. Outside of scope. Show them the recording where you try to get the participant back on task. Show your client or manager this essay. They are paying you as a professional user researcher to gather data about the product, not data about the participant’s belief system.

To continue exploring this context, could you try out ways to stop the participant from continuing a rant? Threaten no stipend? Nope, you can’t threaten. Tell them they’re being rude? Nope, that will fire them up more. Maybe the only thing to add is that a researcher should only be expected to put up with it from one participant once or twice, no more. Three strikes you’re out. Session over.

Note: (Indi) If you were conducting a listening session for a problem space research study, then you would be exploring a participant’s belief system as a part of it. This is a different context.

Indi (still): What I want to ask you is this: Why do you feel like you are expected to “forgive?” (And did I get the redefined words right: “accept” or “respect?”)

J.Loh: Yes. The words should be accept or respect … not forgive. When I realize my own triggers are activated, it makes is more difficult to attend to my user research participants in an unbiased fashion, without feeling dismissive or angry or disgusted. In particular, racist or sexist views, whether aimed at me or particular groups, are hard to ignore. I admit that I almost feel like sharing a few “choice words” of my own sometimes. It’s still a pretty rare occurrence, but I notice especially in these times that I’m encountering it more and more.

Indi: Yeah, it is hard to continue listening. I think the key is to understand that the participant has gone off script, and as a professional researcher, your only job is to get them back on script to get good data, or to end the session.

Because this seems to be happening more and more, there are a couple of things I might ask here: Can someone else share the burden with you? It might help to have someone you can roll your eyes with and then take control to redirect the person back to the script. Having two of you might give you more authority from the participant’s perspective. If you can’t have a partner, then it’s possible to survive repeated outbursts by operating on the assumption (!) that these participants have been brainwashed, and would have beautiful souls if they hadn’t been exposed to all the racism and sexism they were brought up with and soak in daily. Get them back on script. You’d need to be imaginative, strong, sad, repulsed, and hurt all at the same time that you are trying to be an alert researcher.

J.Loh: I appreciate the humour and will be on the lookout for “beautiful souls.”

Indi: Right?! They exist. People repeat something they hear without thinking too much about it. Especially when the thing they hear is about a demographic group, they fall prey to cognitive bias, having had one experience that matches what was said. (Cognitive bias: I see a pattern! It must be true!) I’m confident when they have person-to-person experience with various members of the demographic group and seen the individuality, they’d throw out the thing they’d heard about the demographic group. A big piece that’s missing is the red flag that pops up in that person’s mind about demographic assumptions, leading them to avoid repeating such a statement.


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