Axiom Research Compliance

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Professional Communication Strategies for Human Subject Research

A new researcher visited my office in a panicked state and expressed his concern about his upcoming study. He was already trained to conduct human subject research and IRB approved to conduct his study, but in his words, he did not “feel ready” to collect the data.

His experiences reminded me of the first time I collected data as a master’s student. I collected and analyzed hundreds of personally archived historic letters exchanged between community leaders in the 1970s. The letters described events and decisions that led to a community social movement aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood. I recall the weight of responsibility I felt and the uncertainty I had about my own ability to handle such a large research project. However, throughout all of my doubts, I relied on my training and commitment to communicate with professionalism.

I relayed my personal experiences to the new researcher who visited my office. I also shared a list of strategies to help him communicate professionally.

  • Frame the Message
    • Who are your research subjects? How do they prefer to receive information (e.g., online, face-to-face, etc.)? Respect the people you are trying to contact and use the communication method they prefer. Be sure to tailor your message so that it is understandable, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive.
  • Listen
    • What are the needs of your subjects? Are they unable to meet for an interview that lasts for two hours because they have prior obligations? Can you adjust your schedule to meet their timeline? Can you meet your subjects at a location that is convenient for them? Do your best to accommodate your subjects and listen intently to their requests and questions.
  • Observe
    • During the study, observe your participants’ body language. Observe how they act when they talk. Are they exhibiting any nonverbal cues that could indicate confusion or discontent? Remain sensitive to their needs as they engage with your study materials.
  • Empathize
    • Would you be your own study participant? Are the surveys too long or the interview questions too vague? Position yourself in the role of a study participant. What would you want to know if you were a participant in your own study?
  • Clear Communication
    • Email and social media make it difficult to determine the tone of a message. Focus on clear communication to avoid any confusion between individuals. If possible, communicate verbally, which makes decoding communication much easier.
  • Repeat or Restate
    • Miscommunication is never a comfortable situation. Do your best to understand what the other person is saying by asking them to repeat words you may not have heard correctly or restate a sentence in your own words. You can check that people understand what you have said in order to avoid negative feelings and confusion. Encourage others to offer honest and open feedback.
  • Manage Challenges
    • Research can be frustrating. Participants may not want to complete your survey. They may have partial responses or they may hurridly select, “strongly agree,” for each survey question. People like to feel respected and they want space to express their opinions and points of view. Invite your participants to ask questions or inquire if they would like to stop participating or if they want to take a break.

Above all, remind yourself that every interaction is unique. However, if you remain professional and mindful of the situation, you can conduct your research with confidence.

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