How can psychology help us build stronger rapport in online qualitative research?

Psychology for Online Qual Article_Tom Woodnutt_featured image

It is vital that moderators build rapport with participants in order to do effective qualitative research.  But this can be more difficult online. How can the field of psychology help us overcome this?

I’ve been a qualitative researcher for 20 years (and for the last 13, I’ve specialised in online qual).  As a graduate of psychology I’ve long been fascinated by unconscious human processes. So I commissioned an academic review of psychology literature relevant to online qualitative research.  I share the insights from this (and my experience as a practitioner) in my training: ‘How psychology can inspire better online qual’.   Click on this link below to find out more about it.  Here is some of what I discovered. 

Our role as moderators is to create the conditions for authentic, open disclosure.  We do this in part with interpersonal skills that help us build rapport with participants. ‘Rapport’ has been described by academics as an ‘orientation towards ease; both an aim and element of qualitative research’ (1). Studies have shown that rapport deepens trust, minimises social distance and encourages more candid disclosures (2).  

However, building rapport is harder online because you don’t get the same interpersonal nuance that you do from in-person interaction.  In online qual (both in real time via webcam and over a few days in asynchronous text based methods) we don’t experience the same micro-expressions, speech patterns or feel the energy in the room. Face-to face communication affords ‘thicker information, body talk and communication efficiency’ compared to online. (3)  Fewer non-verbal cues available online, can result in a less nuanced understanding of people if left unchecked. (4) 

So we need to compensate in online qual by employing other measures that get us closer to participants and build rapport.  In my training I share a number of techniques inspired by psychology.  They include ways to use ‘foot in door’ psychology, the theory of reciprocity, the privacy calculus model, how to accelerate group dynamics, maximise engagement, minimise the significance of status and ease group tension (and more).  

However, while we can employ techniques that help us nurture rapport with participants online, we need to be careful not to go too far, in case the relationship influences their answers in a particular direction.  This tension has been articulated as the challenge of ‘building closeness while maintaining distance’ (2).  

If this interests you, check out my qualitative research training which looks at how moderators can design, set up and run online qual that builds more (but not too much) rapport and so inspires more emotional disclosure.  

SOURCES:

  1. Duncombe, J., & Jessop, J. (2012). “Doing rapport” and the ethics of “faking friendship”. In T. Miller, M. Birch, M. Mauthner, & J. Jessop (Eds.), Ethics in qualitative research (2nd ed.). London: Sage. Ch. 7.
  2.  Kvale, S., & Brinkman, S. (2009). Interviews: Learning the craft of qualitative Research (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
  3. Rettie, R. (2009). Mobile phone communication: Extending Goffman to mediated interaction. Sociology, 
  4. Ferran, C., Watts, S., 2008. Videoconferencing in the Field: A Heuristic Processing Model. Management Science 54,

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