Rapport as data

Did I really never post this thought before? I’ve been saying it for years:

Rapport is the most important data we gather in research.

Rapport is attunement to the participant’s enworldment. We learn to speak with a participant fluently in their own context, understanding not only their vocabulary and the content of their speech, but also how that speech relates to their environment and activities. We get not only the parts but grasp how the parts interact as a system, and become organs within an organism within an organization. Until we understand these complex relations between part and whole all we have is a heap of facts that can be construed rightheadedly or wrongheadedly.

Researchers with strong objective inclinations like to believe that facts can speak for themselves. And they like to believe that the facts are best able to speak for themselves when we remove or neutralize subjectivity, usually by employing mechanistic procedures. In the absence of subjective interference, data can autonomously organize itself into patterns and themes.

I am a researcher with strong subjective inclinations, and I believe facts do not speak for themselves, at least not univocally. Our best bet is not to eliminate subjectivity from our analysis, but rather to bring the right subjectivity to the analysis. And that right subjectivity is the subjectivity that attuned itself to participants when rapport was achieved in the interview. When we analyze our data and then thematize it we build a body of knowledge that embodies this right subjectivity, and makes it more learnable by others.

(Esoteric side notes to take or leave: 1. Here we see how a personal subject is, like an academic subject, a specific form of objectivity. 2. We could say, with Marshall McLuhan that the medium, subjectivity acquired in rapport, is the message, even more than the factual content gathered in the research.)

When we approach design problems from this right subjectivity we find ourselves able to do things we couldn’t do before, back when we approached it naively, from our own everyday subjectivity. We now perceive the situation differently. We feel different emotions, values and weights in the situation, and sense different possibilities, opportunities and hopes. Our minds follow different logical paths through the shifted landscape. We produce different and more attuned ideas than we normally could, in greater intensity, force and volume.

I call this productive, shifted state precision inspiration.

Empathy is much more than simple feeling-with. (That is sympathy.) Empathy engages our entire being. For sure, it engages our hearts, but not just our hearts — not isolated, alienated, mindless hearts, divorced from our thinking and doing selves.

Empathy attunes us to the thoughts and actions of others and helps us see how feeling, thought and action converge as a situated, living person who might feel, think and act very differently from us… as different from us as a kidney is from a stomach or liver.

In an organism, the organs serve each other in different and complementary ways. Empathy is how we serve each other in different and complementary ways within organized groups.

The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World. — Black Elk


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