Facilitation is a humanizing art that breaks down barriers
Joyshree Reinelt, Business Humanizer and CEO Innate Motion
Megan Pratt, Business Humanizer and Partner Innate Motion
5 min read

A great facilitator is what makes or breaks qualitative research. At Innate Motion we believe the capacity to empathize sits at the core of being able to unveil deeper insights. Empathy is a super power that unlocks us. It is a bridge-building ability, and it allows us to put ourselves into the shoes of other people.

With the distance that was forced upon us by the pandemic, this became difficult. Covid-19 turned the world upside down in many different ways. We needed to learn new things and rediscover old things. Within the world of qualitative research there was a huge sense of alienation. 

Firstly, because qualitative research is all about connecting more deeply with people and understanding what drives their behavior – either by bringing them together in smaller group discussions or by visiting them through ethnographic home visits. 

Secondly, because you can be more explorative and experimental with shop-alongs, cook-alongs and any other type of encounter. Suddenly being forced to interact in a remote way felt like losing the opportunity to truly empathize and connect. Yet, it just meant we had to reconsider how we were habituated to do things and to explore how to apply some fundamental principles in a new, adapted way.

So we asked ourselves, how can we take this opportunity to evolve qualitative research to the remote world? Empathy levels out hierarchies and creates space for a peer-to-peer conversation. Instead of relating from the stance of a professional strategist to a consumer, applied empathy allows us to relate person-to-person.

6 key principles for facilitating humanized interaction:

  1. Identify the existential space you are exploring beyond the category 
  2. Build awareness through self-empathy exercises 
  3. Be curious and root yourself in culture 
  4. Design a humanized approach that is engaging and surprising
  5. Create a holding space to build trust
  6. Make it a journey of joint discovery and collaboration 

1) Existential Space 

Before we start any process, it is essential to identify which existential spaces we are operating in. Say you are working for a beauty brand: Is it playing in the human arenas of confidence, femininity/masculinity/gender identity or self-cultivation? Or you are working for a household cleaning brand: Is it operating in the space of gender cleaning equality, keeping the family safe or creating a cozy home? It is important to pose these existential questions that surpass the category vision.

2) Self-empathy 

Once you have identified the potential existential spaces a brand or company is operating in with its propositions, become aware of how you personally relate to these topics as your whole self, not just a researcher. Do a guided self-empathy exercise. Take a conscious moment of reflection to understand how you yourself relate to the identified spaces. What is your personal story? What does your personal journey look like? Do not shy away from confronting yourself with the struggles you might have experienced as well. This allows you to build greater consciousness and puts you into a position to gauge deeper conversations at a later stage. After all, it is not about asking just any question, but it is about asking the right questions.

3) Rooted in Culture

No company or brand lives in isolation. If they are truly successful, they are part of our social fabric and daily lives. If they fail to build a meaningful relationship with us, we easily switch them out for others. So, before going into fieldwork, make sure you look for cultural relevance of the category and brand. It can be as simple as visiting shops and seeing the shelves, consciously using the category/brand yourself, or doing an informal social media deep dive. Again, this will equip us for better conversations and deeper understanding. People who consume products are not thinking the whole day about why they are doing so. They do it because the products they choose play a role in their lives.

4) Human-centric Design 

Keep in mind who you are exploring and what types of insights you wish to uncover. Picture the different stakeholders and design a journey that will do justice to them. It is common procedure by now to have ice-breakers within a discussion guide and different sections of exploration before a formal, conclusive ending. This alone will not guarantee engaging conversations in which people are willing to share more personal stories and intimate details. We need to design a journey that truly puts them and their needs at the center. This means we start from people, culture and life instead of behavior, category and brand. We construct a flow that is human-centric. This requires more creativity from our side because we think of questions through the lens of the people we ask questions and wish to learn from. 

5) Holding space

For any human interaction to be fruitful, there needs to be a basis of trust. Obviously, trust needs to be earned. There is no shortcut. It is like saying “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” Once heard, all you can think about is the pink elephant. The same goes for the sentence “Trust me.” Usually, the opposite happens. Hence, it is essential to create holding spaces throughout the conversation in which trust can be gradually built and deepened whilst topics become more personal and intimate.

6) Joint discovery 

For us, a facilitator is only a person who is tasked to steer the ship and ensure we reach the shore together. She has a deeply coordinating function and needs to ensure that each and everyone can contribute to the best of their abilities. This is different from being in the power position of asking all the questions and answering none. As human beings, we all know that the more we give, the more we get. So, a facilitator needs to build trust and gain permission to ask the right questions that often are even unexpected. Usually, these empathy-led questions unfold in thoughtful, more engaging conversations. The biggest sense of gratification comes when people we “interview” enjoy the ride because they made some valuable discoveries, too.