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Three things to think about when asking sensitive survey questions

By Giulia Todres 5 March 2020 3 minute read

Questionnaires can feel like an imposition—I worried that the women would find them unpleasant to complete and had concerns about the effect it may have on my relationships with the women.

Brighton Women’s Centre, BCF grant-holder

Many charities who work with vulnerable people are often naturally reluctant to ask them difficult or sensitive survey questions as part of their impact measurement. However, research and practice in the field of loneliness tells us that these kinds of questions are not only critical in helping us to build a true picture of people’s experiences, but without them, we risk leaving some of the most vulnerable groups’ views and experiences out of our research.

Since 2018, we‘ve been working with grant-holders of the Building Connections Fund (BCF) to help measure their work to reduce loneliness. While we co-designed surveys with some of the grant-holders, many are still nervous that the questions might be perceived as invasive or inappropriate. Among these tricky questions is ‘How often do you feel lonely?’, from the ONS loneliness measure.

Through our work on the Building Connections Fund, we’ve spoken to lots of charities working through these challenges. Here are three key tips that have emerged from our work with those charities:

Think about how you will ask the questions

When asking people personal, sensitive questions, it is important to first build trust and ensure that they feel safe and comfortable. Charities are often uniquely placed to provide a warm, welcoming space for people to form secure bonds and doing so is essential for discussing difficult topics.

The way questions are presented can also affect the way people respond to them. It’s important that people understand why they are being asked to complete a survey and that the topic is approached in a positive and non-judgemental manner. Some may feel more comfortable completing the survey on their own, others might feel more at ease doing so through conversation. And so, it’s important to leave enough time for the surveys to be answered thoughtfully, and for users to seek help while doing so if they need it. These may seem like small things, but it is worth considering them well in advance.

We believe in positive, supportive and nurturing relationships which empower people to have their voices heard, and in turn, feel more able to speak about their lives and realities.

Off The Record, BCF grant-holder

We allow our service users the space to answer the questions alone or we will work through them together, whichever they prefer, to allow them to be honest in their responses.

Women’s Activity Centre CIC, BCF grant-holder

In future, we plan to make the completion of questionnaires a key part of our group session, making sure to give it time so that it’s not tacked on before or after, which can make it feel rushed.

Brighton Women’s Centre, BCF grant holder

Prepare your staff

It’s not just the service users who need to feel comfortable when conducting these potentially tricky conversations. The anxieties of staff can affect how people feel about completing these surveys. But, as with charities we’ve worked with and as other research suggests, most people are happy to answer questions about loneliness, even when they are negatively worded, and it’s important that frontline staff know this.

It’s important for them to understand and be able to clearly explain to users the reasons behind asking them to complete the survey. They also need the tools to deal with potentially challenging situations, such as opportunities to practice how to respond and resources that they can signpost service users to for more help.

Going forward, I think it will be key to explain why the questionnaires are important to our service. In fact, many of the women I have spoken to accept it’s part and parcel of a free service and isn’t an unfamiliar task for them.

Brighton Women’s Centre, BCF grant-holder

Consider the value of difficult conversations

Finally, on their own surveys can seem impersonal; building the themes they cover into broader conversations can be very helpful for supporting service users and for allowing them to express their true feelings. Many of the organisations funded by the Building Connections Fund are doing amazing work connecting people and reducing the stigma around loneliness, and having these conversations is often part and parcel of this.

We encourage users to open up and be honest about their feelings and worries and to be open to receiving support and unconditional acceptance. We find that by creating a safe, welcoming space, people feel able to discuss vulnerabilities and receive the support they need to build strength and move forward.

Women’s Activity Centre CIC, BCF grant-holder

Difficult conversations can promote more open discussion and make challenging topics acceptable to talk about. They can offer an opportunity for reflection and healing, a chance to learn about the different factors that contribute to wellbeing and a way of exploring additional routes for support.

Many of the organisations we’ve spoken to have said that through thinking about the questions you are asking, examining how well supported those asking the questions are, and through considering the value in the conversations taking place during the survey, trusting and honest relationships can be built. For more on our work on the Building Connections Fund, read our 10 tips to help your project reduce loneliness.