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The path of wisdom: slowness in qual research

The slower we go, the deeper we can delve into our own thoughts and emotions…The slow journey is one of self-discovery, as we uncover hidden passions and discover who we truly are…In the slow lane, we have the freedom to explore our creativity and unleash our imagination…The slow path is the path of wisdom, as we gain deeper insights into ourselves and the world around us. ~Carl Honorè

In a culture governed by speed and efficiency, slowness is subversive. Slowness in our lives, in our work, and in the way we relate to each other and the consumers we study. The very essence of qual research is about deeper understanding, contextualization, and meaningful inquiry and exploration. And yet, qual research today, in its effort to keep up with the speed of quant, risks losing its elegance and heart – its deliberateness, thoughtfulness, and a sense of care. 

Slowness is imbued with a mutual sense of caring – both for the researcher and the respondent. It allows us both time to think, to attend deeply to where and how we are located, to our true feelings, and to the needs we have that are met and unfulfilled. We discover ourselves in slowness. Slowness allows us to excavate the deeper subconscious associations we and our respondents have and the motivations we don’t readily know drive us. It allows us to be surprised by what we know and feel. 

Qual research in its traditional sense was oriented in and through the beauty of slowness – sitting together with another person, engaging in the craft of deep active listening, and reading the subtle nuances of facial expression and idiosyncratic gestures. Flowing with a slow cadence, qual research involved taking the time to understand our participants deeply and letting ourselves be changed by them and them by us. 

Today, slowness can mean something other than a protracted timeline for completing qual research. It’s an ethos, not a timeline. It’s about moments – mere moments – of pause. It’s about different kinds of considerations, like attention to place and history. It’s about curating ecstatic bursts of emotions like joy. It’s about uncovering wisdom and following its path.   

In the fast-paced context of market research today, how can we inject slowness back into the art of qualitative inquiry? We have three tips for slowing down, for celebrating slowness, for accessing deeper insights, and for invigorating our research participants in the process. 

Pause. No - really pause. 

Whether it’s speeding through our day with a frantic urgency to get things done or it’s the work of designing an effective qualitative questionnaire on a tight timeline, we’ve lost the exquisite beauty of pause and stillness. Pausing is the simplest tool for slowing down, and for discovering wisdom. It requires only a moment of “stop”. Permit respondents and encourage them to stop and pause even before they think. That moment of silence and nonthinking creates a reset from the mundane and mindless tasks we hurry through in our day. It brings people back to themselves, their truer core, and from there, they can do better thinking and offer more heartfelt and intelligent insights. 

Attend to place. 

An auto-ethnographic approach to qualitative research, where we invite respondents to be co-researchers and analysts of their own lives, necessitates a reflection on place – our geographic location with its cultural history, its social moorings, and its natural features. This attention offers a powerful context for deeper understanding. When we attend to a place – truly attend to it – we automatically slow down. We notice things we hadn’t noticed before. We see the unfolding of sociality and care. Places are nuanced, they’re wholly unique, and so they shape how we behave, what we value, and – in a profound way– who we are. To access a fuller and truer understanding of why consumers do what they do and care about what they do, we can get a richer accounting of their life experience and their identities. Trust respondents’ sophisticated and singular knowledge and invite them to share their geographic, historical, and social location at a more essential level. They will surprise you with the profound insights that follow. 

Give the gift of joy. 

Joy is an electric emotion. It jolts us into the present moment. It stops us in our tracks. We experience the intensity of joy in the now. In essence, it slows us down. Play and creativity are sources of exhilaration, and injecting these into how we approach respondents gives them the gift of joyful encounters and intense pleasure. Engage consumers in play – in fun projective techniques, in imagining other futures, in dreaming up the most perfect product, in sharing the everyday moments of joy and celebration in their lives. The responses will be charged with energy, deeper meaning, and even gratitude that you’re seeing them as humans who want to slow down and savor the best moments.