When you think ‘researcher’ the first image that may come to mind is the ‘nerdy professor’ type, who wears glasses and beavers away at a messy, disorganized desk. Or a middle-aged person with a white lab coat, in a sterilized room with a test tube in hand. Whilst I do wear glasses from time to time, I am nothing like these images. I think the last time I held a test tube was in year 10 at school when I took my eyes off the Bunsen burner for too long, causing a miniature fire that nearly burnt the classroom down.
I have spent the past 25 years ‘researching’ and understanding human behaviour. It is one of my passions in life. It all began the day I set foot in one of my first university lectures for psychology on the topic of perception. I can still see that slightly mad professor at the front of the auditorium as he scribbled a diagram in chalk detailing the rationale for being unable to prove we are real. ‘We as humans, are reliant on our senses to understand our existence, therefore we have no proof that we are even real’ he kept saying. Who is to say that blackboard I was watching intently even existed. I was wonderfully ‘mind-f&*^ked’ that day and have been hooked ever since on the wonderment of the human existence and particularly what goes on inside the minds (& hearts) of people.
I still carry that lesson with me to this day with the understanding that our perception as a researcher is only ever that, a perception reliant on our senses. We don’t know what ‘absolute reality’ is. We are kidding ourselves if we claim to ever truly understand anyone completely.
The valuable skill of a researcher as I see it, is to fine tune our individual perception by removing the layers of our selves, our own biases and conditioning if we have any chance of seeing things as they really are. We also need to see beyond the words and what sits on the surface. To dive in as far as we can go in order to tap into the depth of the human psyche and all the wonderful and uncomfortable feelings that come along with that journey.
I am a consumer researcher. My job is to understand what people really want to help align and meet the needs of brands and the people. I have done countless focus groups over the years and have on numerous occasions, been moved to tears by what I have heard. Some of those tears I must admit have been tears of laughter, for example someone thinking biscuits were made from potatoes or that ancient grains are grains that have been left in the bottom of the barrel for too long. Mind you, I don’t ever laugh at people, I will only ever laugh with them.
You can learn a lot about people in a few short hours. A few years ago I was working on a project with a group of middle aged family men, It is fair to say as a general rule, men don’t tend to open up to other men in the way women do so I entered that room with the awareness that it may have been an uphill battle getting them to even talk.
What I discovered that day was that every one of those men, were at some level, hoping for a better life for themselves and their families. That day I heard about money struggles, fractured relationships, the regret of being absent fathers and the insurmountable pressures of work. One man in particular held onto the hope of winning the lottery with the ticket being ‘a little bit of hope in my pocket.’
I wondered if I was learning more about these men than even their wives and close family knew. At one point I had to step out of the room to compose myself as the reality of what I was hearing was deep and it was confronting. I saw men in a whole new light that day and learnt a lot about what goes on behind the brave faces we see walking the streets.
The psychologist in me always triggers into wanting to help resolve. I have learnt over the years that often listening is the biggest gift you can give someone. Just being present to what someone else is saying – without judgment. Each of those men thanked me that day as they left, somehow leaving a little lighter in the reassurance that they were not alone in their struggles.
So whilst I am clear about the role I fulfill for my clients as a researcher, there is an extra layer in there, just for me. It’s about listening, It’s about giving each person that little bit of my time to share something they want to share about themselves. I have no idea what people take out of the sessions but I hope on some level, each person walks away knowing just a little bit more about themselves and more importantly, they walk away feeling heard.
Kellie Tyrrell, is the founder & co-director of innerperspective.com.au. She is a researcher, insights specialist, psychologist and proud mum to twin girls.