I was very excited when I learned of this particular Spark event. Working in qualitative research and volunteering at an organisation offering group therapy workshops, the parallels between the two are becoming increasingly clear to me, so I seized the opportunity to learn how to apply skills from one to the other.

The session, run by Nicky Forsythe, a practicing psychotherapist who previously worked in qualitative research, was a healthy mix of presentation, group exercises, video and Q&A — the kind of dynamism needed for a post-work event!

Borrowing from the world of psychotherapy, Nicky explored how we can apply ‘empathetic listening’ to our qualitative endeavours. Described as “the kind of attending, observing and listening — the kind of ‘being with’— needed to develop an understanding (of others) and their worlds” (Gerard Egan, The Skilled Helper), it’s particularly relevant and beneficial to qualitative research.

Through fostering a feeling of trust, transparency and acceptance, we can positively encourage participants to say what they mean; forming a deeper connection with both them and the truth. The art of empathetic listening was demonstrated through a group exercise, whereby Nicky shared with us a very sad and personal story of her own. In turn, we would respond by paraphrasing her story, observing her behaviours, describing our feelings, guessing her feelings, and interpreting her experience, all throughout exchanging “you” for the all important and vulnerable “I”.

Ultimately, empathetic listening creates an experience of universality; a feeling that we’re not and never alone, but instead all connected. For this reason, as with psychotherapy and qualitive research, the process of sharing positively impacted our own wellbeing for that evening (so thank you for doing so, Nicky). It was a powerful session. Through sharing such a recent personal experience, we were immediately ‘with’ her; totally engaged and encouraged to be our most authentic and open selves, everything we could hope for in our participants.