There is a lot of talk out there about how anything and everything outside of work can help you get ahead in your career: The Terminator offers lessons on being an entrepreneur. Superchickens have something to say about productivity. And jolly ol’ Saint Nick can teach you about career habits.
But rarely do we hear the flip: how what we do at work can help us in our personal lives. I'd argue one of the basic skills in a strategist’s toolkit makes the cut: qualitative research.
And I don’t mean observing people in contrived environments behind windows. I’m talking nitty-gritty, out-in-the-real-world interaction. Meeting people without agenda, simply to learn and, hopefully, to understand.
I'm not too cool or proud to admit how the qualitative research for a couple of recent projects forced me to take a look at my own life.
The first project was McKinney’s work for the Ad Council’s “Finish Your Diploma” program, designed to encourage non-graduates to find free adult education classes.
Going in, it was hard to shake the widely held stereotype that dropouts leave high school due to laziness, drug abuse or incompetence. And that it’s embarrassment or shame keeping them from going back to get their diploma.
However, by sitting down with them in their own homes and visiting with their friends and family, we learned many non-graduates dropped out not because of their own inadequacies but to take care of their loved ones: children, parents, siblings — even friends and neighbors. After years successfully supporting others, they worry they can’t pursue their diploma without neglecting their responsibilities to the people who matter most to them.
Our “No One Gets a Diploma Alone” campaign motivated non-graduates by convincing them to finally rely on others, leading to the most successful campaign in the program’s history.
In hindsight, I’m ashamed to have even considered those unfortunate stereotypes. I no longer see dropouts who have no one but themselves to blame. I see hardworking non-graduates who deserve the support they so selflessly give. Now, I work to recognize and confront the stereotypes that lurk in my head. For example, when I talk with my father-in-law about meditation — something that was completely foreign to me — I no longer dismiss it as new-age hocus-pocus. By parking my hang-ups and giving it a shot, I’ve come to realize it is another tool to fight depression and anxiety, things I have struggled with for years.
The second project was our “Stop HB2” work for Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
In 2016, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed HB2, commonly known as the “bathroom bill,” into effect. The bill required transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender assigned at birth.
This was embarrassing for a state that was often referred to as the most progressive in the South. Overnight, we went from being known for innovative research, higher learning and college basketball to being associated with bigotry and discrimination, the target of late-night jokes and suffering negative economic repercussions. We had to rally public opinion to oust McCrory at the polls and, ultimately, overturn HB2.
In speaking with friends and family across the state, it was obvious there were two different camps of people with two very different and opposing viewpoints. Supporters of the bill felt that it was a common-sense approach to protect women and children in North Carolina, while opponents felt that it was blatant discrimination toward the LGBT community. With little time until the next election, it was clear we weren’t going to change public opinion on something as charged as transgender issues.
But we didn’t have to.
Instead of changing the hearts and minds of HB2 supporters, we discovered something in our discussions that both sides could agree on: their love for North Carolina and everything that makes us special and successful. No matter how they felt about transgender issues, they didn't like anything that attacks our state or causes its reputation to suffer — which included HB2. By focusing the narrative on the secondary, negative repercussions of HB2 that all parties were against, we created impressions that helped fight the issue — sending a governor packing and changing a law in the process.
This project made me realize that not every issue is binary. That, sometimes, to get anywhere meaningful it’s more productive to look for common ground than it is to win the “I’m right, you’re wrong” argument. As a newly married man, this is something I work to keep in mind. I may believe my intentions are noble, but I have to realize that I am but one half of the equation — there is another person with their own thoughts and beliefs, and it’s more important to see where we overlap than it is to convert one to the other’s position.
These were lessons specific to me and my experience, but I’d bet the benefits of qualitative research on our personal lives are universal. At a time where many Americans feel more divided than at any time since the Civil War, we all stand to gain by doing a little more listening and a little less talking — or yelling. So the next time you find yourself face-to-face with someone who has different views, or comes from a different background, take a minute to stop, listen, and seek understanding. Be a strategist out in the real world. We’ll all be better for it.