Conducting Research with a Healing Mindset

Caring for research participants over the phone in the time of pandemics

Over the past couple of years, Code for America has integrated qualitative research more deeply into our programs and products. We have invested in hiring researchers in all of our program areas and have worked to make our practice more trauma-informed. With this foundation, we have approached this current moment by realizing that research is now more important than ever. Our products and services continue to be led by those we serve, and we have adapted our research practices to make sure people lead the way.

The COVID-19, police brutality, and systemic racism pandemics affect folks that we serve at Code for America in more severe ways than most. These intense experiences we are all witnessing will leave their mark not only on us, but on generations to come. As researchers working with those who have been systemically and historically marginalized, we must realize and recognize their intergenerational trauma as we conduct any research right now. It is important now more than ever to not only conduct trauma-informed research, but also approach research with a healing mindset. This means that each research engagement must center care for our participants and ourselves. Our research questions are important, but caring for participants must take center stage right now.

Our team has been working hard to adapt our qualitative research practices over the past five months.

The current pandemics are changing the ways that we normally conduct research, so we have had to become flexible and innovative in how we approach our practice. Months before the pandemic hit, we had been talking about ensuring that our research is trauma-informed. Developing this practice in “normal” circumstances has helped us ensure that we are able to approach these crises with the necessary skills to support those who are most affected by it.

Our research over the past couple of months in the criminal justice space has focused on the ways that those impacted by the criminal justice system are also disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and police brutality. We hope that our research will work to demonstrate the need for systemic change, while also centering and caring for individuals. Some things that we are finding are especially important include:

  • Take care of yourself and your team members so you can show up fully for research participants
  • Rapport-building and active listening practices for phone interviews
  • Recognize the intense stress that folks are under and their need for easy-to-access incentives
  • Make sure folks have what they need to fully consent to a remote interview

Caring for yourself and your team

We cannot be present and give to others if we are starting with an empty cup—which is why caring for ourselves and our team is the cornerstone of our research practice. We’re all experiencing an onslaught of news and headlines that add to a greater sense of doom. It’s difficult to heal from the vicarious trauma of an interview when you turn to social media or news alerts that confirm that what you just heard is happening to thousands across the country. We are experiencing our research from an individual’s experience, but are also affected by the global ramifications of the current moment.

This means we need to care for ourselves and each other with a kinder heart right now to ensure that we heal from this trauma. Our normal coping mechanisms might be off-limits because of social distancing guidelines, so we’ve had to turn to other practices. This has included limiting the number of interviews we have in the day, processing with teammates over Zoom, and, most importantly, seeking out external mental health services.

We can only show up for our participants and serve folks if we take care of ourselves, and we have had to learn how to do this when our toolbox is already half-empty. The research community needs to strive for radical interdependence so we can support both ourselves as individuals and each other as a community.

Conducting virtual interviews

Because of social distancing guidelines, all of the research we have been conducting has been virtual. Being trauma-informed over the phone or Zoom is very different than in person. We are still trying to develop a sense of response mechanisms for these interviews but there are a few ways we are approaching this new research reality.

What research looked like before the pandemic.

Body language cues give us an opportunity to respond when we recognize trauma in research participants. For example, if you see someone slumped in their chair or not making eye contact, it may be a time to take a break in the conversation, or offer them some water. But it’s impossible to pick up on body language cues over the phone. Allowing for space between questions becomes harder over the phone as well, as you want to make sure the person on the other side of the line knows you are listening, but you want to be careful to not cut them off. We have had to better understand how to respond to folks when our normal mechanisms are dependent on being in person.

As we have conducted these interviews, I have found that introducing the project and ensuring informed consent at the beginning of the conversation is even more important. Making sure folks know that they can stop the conversation at any time is vital. Highlighting this throughout the interview helps to create more space in the conversation as well. I also have found it helpful to offer specific advice and thank people after the interview, and encourage them to let us know if they are not okay with sharing any of their interview. We are still trying to understand and develop the best practices for a trauma-informed virtual interview, but reminders, active listening, and informed consent are some ways we have thought about integrating more trauma-informed practices. While these are not the same as the responses we could have in person, they start to provide that same sense of space that offering water and breaks does as a trauma response.

Talking to people with high stress and emotions

It would be difficult to find anyone who isn’t experiencing higher levels of stress and emotions these days, and those who use our services are disproportionately affected by the current moment. When conducting research, we are often talking to people who are grieving, sick with COVID-19 themselves, out of a job, affected by police brutality, or often some combination of these circumstances. For example, we have talked to folks who have gotten COVID because they had to continue to go to work to pay bills. We often ask people to share stories that may be deeply traumatizing, so we must approach these conversations by recognizing the stress that they’re under and do the work to ensure they are cared for. We should ensure that we are doing research for the right reason and we are not being extractive in our approach, especially right now when emotions and stress are high.

One way that this is showing up in our research engagement is how we are offering incentives. In our Qualitative Research Practice Guide we discuss the importance of paying people for their time. Right now, unemployment is high across the country, and folks are strapped for cash. When we have recruited for research projects over the past couple of months, we have had much higher response rates than pre-pandemic. For us, this speaks to the fact that there is an intense need for cash. This is also highlighted by our work on GetYourRefund, which has seen an onslaught of applications over the past couple of months.

Although we cannot interview everyone who responds, we must recognize the way that incentives are showing up in these conversations. For example, because we offer digital gift cards as incentives, folks may want to talk to us not only because they want to share their experience, but also because they need the money to buy food or pay rent. This makes the conversation much higher stakes, increasing the possibility of them trying to “please” us with the “right” answers. As such, it is important to make sure to send the incentive before the conversation even starts, create rapport at the beginning, and reiterate that they are the subject-matter experts in their own lives.

We are also trying to understand the best way to send incentives. Right now, our digital gift cards are not the most friendly to folks who buy from physical stores or those who are not tech-savvy. Over the course of the past couple of months, we have learned to be more flexible in our incentives and recognize their increased importance during an unemployment crisis.

Talking to people who are lonely

Right now, many research participants are a lot lonelier than they would be in “normal” times because of social distancing protocols. So when they get on the phone with us, they might be more willing to open up (or might want to share more information than is relevant for our research), in order to feel a sense of human connection that they are missing. As researchers, it is important to recognize this need and allow them to share what they need to, without leaving them in a place where they feel they shared too much. Creating a safe environment and keeping information confidential while also reminding people they can leave whenever they like has helped us create a space where folks can share, but don’t feel forced to. Because folks are experiencing a high level of stress and are lonely, there is a higher likelihood that they will overshare, and as researchers it’s important that we guide the conversation while also making sure folks feel safe.

“Accepting the fact that I may never get on the phone with somebody, let me just continue doing busy signals, without employment, and I may not receive a stimulus sometime, I may not have a job secured and then taking what I can accept and then moving forward with anything that I can control, which is I can get out, I can go for a run, I can clean my house.”
Person living with a conviction talking about the financial and emotional strain of the pandemics

This sense of loneliness has also changed the way that we have engaged folks. For example, in our work on Clear My Record, we have not only conducted one-on-one in-depth interviews, but have also followed up through virtual diary studies. After our initial interviews, we ask questions every 10 or so days, following up on specific threads we discussed during our interview. This allows us to not only make sure that we are keeping up with participants as things change quickly around them, but also adds to their sense of involvement in the project. We also follow up and ask them for feedback on our final deliverable to make sure we were capturing their stories and thoughts accurately.

Research participants responded to nearly every diary study we sent. Often, we were talking to folks about pandemic-related services like unemployment insurance, the stimulus check, and SNAP. People talked about how tough the difference processes were; often they would wait on hold for hours to get questions answered about their case. When they were unable to talk directly to service providers in government, they would often air their grievances with us. In fact, some folks reached out in between the diary study questions to tell us about updates to their experience with these services, because we were listening to them in ways that overburdened government services could not.

Through these research interviews, we have tried to provide a listening ear for folks who are isolated from their normal communication methods. This is especially needed when we are asking them about their interactions with government services, since many of which do not provide much space for client feedback.

What this moment is highlighting for us

These interviews and our research generally are not uncovering anything we didn’t already know: that the people we serve across Code for America’s program areas are often the same. This is a moment of intense crisis on a global level, but those who we serve, who have been systematically marginalized, have always been facing moments of personal crisis. This is just as true now as it was before March 2020, we are just seeing the cracks in our system more clearly because of the strain the pandemics have put on them.

“I filed and everything, and I had the IRS send me something online telling me my stimulus check payment would be mailed on the 15th of May, or whatever, and yet to this date have I yet to see my stimulus check yet, and nobody can find it, nobody wants to talk to me. You can’t get in touch with anybody over the phone. I still haven’t got that stimulus check… I’ve sat on the phone literally with the workforce place, and literally for four and a half hours—listening to this, the elevator music just over, and over, and over, and nobody’s come on. It’s so hard to get in touch with anybody.”
Person living with a conviction talking about their experience with the stimulus check

For example, in interviews about the criminal justice system, we uncover problems applying for benefits and getting the stimulus checks. Those living with convictions are much more likely to be paid under the table for their work, meaning they are less likely to have pay stubs for unemployment insurance or to file taxes, allowing for direct deposit of the stimulus checks. However, because of the intersections between our work, this is also a time when we can offer more support to our participants. If I interview someone about their experience living with a conviction who has also had trouble applying for the stimulus payment, I can direct them towards GetYourRefund. This meets people where they are and allows for direct support for the multiple crises they may be experiencing in this moment.

We are also beginning to better understand the role of research in this current moment and how to adapt. We are also discussing when research should be used, and when we should be focusing on listening to folks in other ways (such as through client success). We are continuing to grow in our understanding of research as a team, and better reflecting on our own power as researchers. We have always had a responsibility to the folks we are trying to serve, and now more than ever we should make sure that we are heeding this call and putting those most impacted at the forefront of everything we do.

Related stories