User research series
How to look after yourself and colleagues after difficult conversations come up
A reflective blog post, written by Anne and Eve.
As researchers, we have the immense privilege of getting to know people and listen to their stories. We plan their participation carefully and make sure that they are supported before, during, and after the conversations. Our team’s well-being is equally important: how do you look after yourself and your colleagues?
The thoughts below are gleaned from our personal experience and what we have learned working with Snook. Maybe they can be of help to you or give you some new ideas to try out. We would love to hear from you as well – share your tricks with us #snookthinking
Why do you need to look after yourself?
Upsetting conversations can come up at any time. Sometimes it might be obvious to be prepared when you start projects, like with Tech vs Abuse, if we’re talking mental health with young people, or when researching mental well-being and employment. In these cases you know to watch out for trauma triggers in participants and in yourself.
However, be prepared to listen to and support participants at anytime. We have facilitated some very emotional workshops in contexts you wouldn’t necessarily expect. When we talked to people on a waiting list for housing, some felt it was the first time they had had a chance to tell their story from the beginning. They became emotional relating their story to people in a similar situation and to our researchers. As researchers, we don’t have direct influence over our interviewees, but they appreciate we are there to listen. When we researched what citizens need from their Council, the issue of domestic violence came up many times. As did harassment in the workplace and children taken into care. Tread very carefully – even in contexts that may at first seem ‘safe’.
We call ‘debriefing’ the time and space to reflect and take stock. We are grateful for the people we’ve met and the stories they have shared. But we leave these stories with them. We need to make sure that we don’t let the stories overwhelm us, that we don’t take them home with us. If we did, it would end up being a burden on our own mental well-being.
So, what do you do?
Plan a set of activities in advance. The project needs to make space and time for the team members to put some distance between themselves and the stories that they’ve heard. Sometimes physical distance – feeling the rumble of the train taking you back home – can be a good starting point.
We’re sharing some light-touch methods to deal with the big things. These approaches are usually enough but in some cases, if the session was particularly taxing, you will need support from professionals. Before you start your research, you might want to check that your health and safety policy and practices include what to do in this case.
Our well-being rituals
Everyone is different. We all have different experiences, triggers, comfort levels, and different ways of coping. You need to experiment and find out what works for you – and become aware of what works for your colleagues. Some of these ideas might appeal to you and others might make you cringe. Don’t judge, just pick what works for you. We’d love to hear your ideas.
1. The 10 mins post-research slot
As a general rule, always have 10 mins post-research planned. That excludes any travelling or write-up time set aside for notes and synthesis. I know projects get hectic and busy but planning 10 mins for debriefing after a session should become second nature to you. So, what should you do during these 10 mins?
The first thing is to breathe deeply and slowly. Become aware of your breath and your surroundings. Listen to the sounds around you. Pay attention to what you see. This helps you come back into your space and yourself, and avoid being sucked into someone else’s story.
3. Designated friend with pockets full of puns
What do you call a person who makes lemonade in a hospital?
Gotta love a good pun! If puns are not your thing (as it turns out, it might just be Eve), what else makes you laugh? Are there any light-hearted topics you enjoy?
4. Talk to someone
On a more serious note, who will be your go-to person? Even therapists have supervisors to help them keep some distance from their patients, why not researchers too? Whether that’s your manager, HR, or one of your teammates, make sure they know that you might need them when you leave the session. If you’re talking to people outside of work, have a think about confidentiality and what you can and can’t share.
5. Shake it off
Whether you’re a dancing legend or not, shake off your hands or tap loudly with your feet. Shaking or tapping off creates a feeling of distance which can help you get a good night’s sleep. Brush off your shoulders and your back. You can try other sorts of physical exercise as well. I’ve found going to the gym extremely helpful (and I hate the gym…).
Whilst not wanting to sound like a cliché, I found writing one of the most helpful tips on this list. As an example, you could write ‘thank you’ letters to participants. Whether you send them or not doesn’t matter. You can decide whether it’s personal or not, through social media or your inbox, scribbles in a notebook or simply a note on your phone.
Sometimes drawing or painting can be therapeutic and help you express how you feel after a research session. It doesn’t have to follow any format or structure. Perhaps you could doodle your thoughts from the session to help synthesise your ideas. Otherwise, you could paint or colour how you feel.
8. Company culture
What do you do to debrief? Our research team is out and about daily to facilitate workshops and meet very lovely people. Before coming back together to synthesise insights, we spend a bit of time as a team to debrief. Top tip from Eve and MarieMc today: make yourself comfy and giggle away on pun jokes whilst listening to chill music #research #snookstudio #ethnography #userresearch #servicedesign
Company culture doesn’t develop overnight but must be nurtured over time. At Snook, we firmly believe in the power of asking ‘Are you OK?’. We’ve learned to ask this meaningfully and to answer truthfully – not brush it off with ‘I’m fine’.
When it comes to sensitive topics and research, it’s extremely important to ensure the right processes and procedures are in place – and that all staff are aware of them. But beyond this, throughout the years I’ve found something that is way more important – and that is having a supportive and caring company culture.