By: Scarlett Ferguson, Research Strategist
I’ve conducted thousands of one-on-one interviews over my 25-year career as a researcher, but I recently found myself in several that were challenging in ways I don’t typically experience. I had volunteered to help an organization gather data about people experiencing homelessness across Minnesota. That day, I heard some incredibly difficult stories as people described their path to homelessness, struggles in their daily life, and barriers to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty.
As researchers, we practice unconditional positive regard for those we interview, and that was probably never more important than with this group of people.
I was drawn to volunteer because I’d been involved with other organizations serving the disadvantaged over the years and was curious about the people I saw in need of those services. Volunteering for this effort was a natural way for me to continue to help the homeless population and learn more about their lives. The information gathered will be used by state and local governments to allocate funding for housing and social programs to serve the people I interacted with that day.
I’ve pursued other opportunities to use my qualitative research skills to serve others, including “Free Listening” a movement developed by Urban Confessional and covered by media like NPR and Fast Company.
Free Listening is built on the premise that many people have issues weighing on them but have no one to just listen. It promotes that when we listen solely for understanding, without intent to judge or persuade, we develop empathy for one another and improve communication.
Working with peers in the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, I helped organize a morning training session for 20 volunteers to learn and practice Free Listening. The group then dispersed into the community to experience it firsthand. While standing in a farmer’s market with a “Free Listening” sign was unnerving at first, I was surprised at the number of people who approached me and my colleague with curiosity and appreciation for this effort. More surprising was that, when given the opportunity, strangers did share concerns on their mind ranging from frustrations with work or family to observations on society.
I believe my volunteer work has positively impacted my personal and professional life. It’s a reminder that regardless of who you are or what situation you’re in, people just want to feel heard and understood. There’s incredible power in respecting someone’s humanity, in believing that each of us is trying to do the best we can, and in just listening.