The importance of listening to stories

Brene Brown describes stories as the data of the soul. She is a Research Professor at the University of Houston and describes herself as a qualitative researcher, using depth research to understand human emotional and vulnerabilities.  If you’ve seen her TED talk on Vulnerability you will understand her passion for listening to stories and using this ‘soul data’ to bring a new level of understanding to human behaviour.

So often in research we come armed with a list of questions, we have a focus on a particular topic, an allocated time for our work and then we try and make an interview or focus group fit around that process. Whilst this can work very well for many projects, particularly for commercial work, it does not always work so well where the research is focused on personal experiences and life adjustments.

If we wish to explore a person’s life experience, then we need to listen carefully to what they want to say and how they wish to recount it and what are the important and significant elements from their perspective.  If you then think of hearing multiple stories about similar life experiences, you can see how this can provide a deep understanding and body of knowledge about how a service or event impacts on people.

Stories are also not made in isolation – and hearing other peoples side of the story can help to increase our knowledge and understanding.  Take for example the cancer patient, who has the story of their journey to share, about their care and treatment and the significance of certain paths within their journey.  Think then about the partner, or best friend, or son or daughter who has lived this story with them, but also has their own body of evidence to give and their own unique experience of the services and care involved.

The environment where we ask people to share their stories can also be significant.  Some of the best interviews I’ve done have been in a person’s home, where I can get a real sense of them, their family and see first-hand the impact of their story.  I’ve interviewed in detached houses, in bedsits, with cats on my lap and dogs at my feet, children screaming, teenagers fighting upstairs, I’ve been shown around new wet rooms, old bathrooms, been offered endless varieties of teas and coffees, and after one of my most moving interviews, given a Gaudi Spanish lizard that still sits on my office shelf reminding me of that rather amazing young woman struggling with psoriasis who spent 3 hours telling me her story. 

So, the moral of the story? Less structure and more freedom to explore a participant’s story may just enable more realistic, useful and insightful information – we may learn something we didn’t expect or didn’t think to ask – and that is what makes research great and puts the soul back into our data.