LAWG Week: Expanding the Qualitative Toolkit: Skills Adopted from the Helping Fields by Jenna LaChenaye and Shannon McCarthy

Greetings, AEA365 readers! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. To whet our appetites for this year’s conference in beautiful New Orleans, this week’s posts come to us from the feature the perspectives of the Gulf Coast Eval Network (GCEval) members, where the uniqueness of doing evaluation in the gulf south will be on display. Happy reading!

Hello, AEA!  I’m Jenna LaChenaye, associate professor of educational psychology and research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, South Louisiana native, and member of GCEval, our local Gulf Coast AEA affiliate. 

Working in communities across Louisiana over the last decade has brought numerous opportunities to elevate the narratives and experiences within issues traditionally overlooked in our local communities. From evaluating public services post-Katrina to the contemporary everyday experiences of environmental racism and health disparities in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”, sensitive topics have become a growing focus of our evaluation work in the gulf south. 

These contexts have often left me travelling home from interviews and focus groups feeling that my standard qualitative training was lacking when discussing the emotional facets of these issues and that, as a result, I was doing a disservice to my participants. How could I improve my practice to create ease for participants?  And what skills can I add to my qualitative “toolkit” to improve validity and accuracy in my assertions when the content is not part of my own personal experience?

Hot Tips:

I approached my co-author Shannon McCarthy, a faculty member in counselor education and fellow qualitative researcher, for strategies or techniques used in counseling and other helping fields that could translate well into qualitative practice – especially those skills that could improve the participant experience in sensitive discussions and center these stakeholders as collaborators in the analysis and presentation of findings. Specific counseling skills and tenets that we have found useful in our qualitative practice as a result of these discussions are:

Recenter rapport and empathy: Although both are key facets of qualitative practice, we often focus most of our qualitative training on data collection and analysis strategies. Exploring counseling interview methods helped me recenter rapport and empathy in my approaches to qualitative evaluation. 

Reflecting meaning and reflecting feeling: These counseling skills assist in focusing the conversation on the emotions and values underlying our experiences while creating an environment where the participant feels heard. These skills often include paraphrasing while including an opening for the participant to clarify. For example, a follow up statement of “It sounds like protecting your family from this issue is very important to you?” allows the interviewee to correct the evaluator if necessary and engage in the coding of the content. The participant becomes more of a collaborator in constructing findings rather than leaving inferencing and analysis to the evaluator, who is often foreign to the experience and community.

Managing emotional labor: Immersing ourselves in the often harsh and emotional experiences can take a toll on both the interviewee and the interviewer. Counseling offers (and encourages) reflective practices to navigate this constant immersion as well as offer insight into establishing a balance between building empathetic, rapport-encouraging relationships and maintaining healthy professional boundaries.

Lessons Learned:

Despite the very different uses and goals of the counseling and evaluation professions, the helping fields have significant tools to offer those working in a broad range of evaluation contexts. Exploring this field’s interviewing strategies has pushed me to re-examine and reflect on my own practice as a qualitative evaluator, especially in areas and topics that are psychologically demanding for the communities we serve, and refocus my practice on empathy, relationship building, and collaborative evaluation. But most importantly, building this area of my qualitative skillset has made the experience of participating in data collection activities better for the communities we serve.

We’re looking forward to the Evaluation 2022 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to contribute to AEA365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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