Facilitating felt senses in research
A discussion of facilitating felt senses needs to begin with the question, why do felt senses need facilitating? The reason is that a felt sense is an ephemeral, emergent experience, and in its early stages it can easily be overlooked or dismissed. For instance, during a research interview a participant says, “I’m feeling ... it’s hard to describe ... kind of a wall inside. No, that’s not quite it. It’s ... it’s ... I don’t know. It’s just very vague right now. I guess I’m just being resistant.” She is dismissing her own experience (“kind of like a wall inside ... but that’s not quite it as being unimportant, labeling herself as “resistant.” This kind of dismissal of embodied experience is quite common. Embodied researchers can bring much value to the research process by being good listeners and careful “cultivators” of felt senses. A felt sense is delicate because it is both emergent and odd; questioning or criticism tends to make it disappear. Yet staying in contact with it, new experiential understanding and living emerge from it. The ideal way to facilitate a felt sense is to help the participant remain aware with it with curiosity but without analyzing or questioning.
One way to foster staying with unclear or not-yet-articulated felt meanings might include encouragement such as “Take your time,” or “Let’s pause and give you some time to feel into that” when listening to a research participant. At the start of an interview, one can say, “Today let’s remember to allow pauses while speaking because often what is most important can be hard to articulate at first.” Often when the researcher and participant can slow down enough, indicators of felt senses emerge. Some indicators of felt senses might include:
- • Slowing speech
- • Pausing in the middle of speaking
- • Looking down or into the distance while speaking
- • Groping for words, being suddenly inarticulate, saying “this is hard to put into words”
- • Use of gestures, especially to substitute for words, as in: “I don’t know, it’s ... [gesture].”
- • Using fresh metaphorical descriptions, “it’s kind of like a wall inside ...”
- • Using words like “kind of’ or “something” or “here” or “this.”
In addition to taking time and going slowly, ways of facilitating felt senses include:
- • Respectful, attentive silence
- • Repetition of key phrases (e.g. “it’s kind of like a wall inside ...”)
- • Prompts containing the word “something”—such as “There’s something more there” or “There is something about that.”
- • Combination of the word “something” with repetition of key phrases (“You’re aware of something like a wall inside...”).
Problems with questions
The reader might note that asking participants questions is not on the lists above. Over many years of observation and practice we have come to question the value of questions in encouraging people to articulate felt senses. There are two problems with asking questions while facilitating felt senses. First, asking a question invites interpersonal contact, but it is not in the interpersonal space that a felt sense will be found. The felt sense is in one’s own felt experience, which can be harder to feel while making eye contact with another person. Second, questions imply that the answer is prepared, formed, ready, which implies a demand for an immediate answer. This works against the need for a felt sense to have an undemanding space of time in order to emerge. When asked a question, one will often say, “I don’t know” or ‘‘I think it’s ...” instead of staying longer with an unclear, emerging sense.
If there is not currently a felt sense to facilitate, a researcher can invite felt senses. Assuming a participant has been speaking about a topic, an incident, a decision, or the like, and comes to a stop, invitations can facilitate the exploration, (notice that none of them are questions):
- • “Let’s slow down here and invite the whole feel of that to come.”
- • “Maybe just take your time to get a sense of all that.”
- • “I wonder how that whole thing feels to you right now, if you take a
- • “Take a moment to let all of that come as one whole feeling now.”
- • “Let’s pause a moment and get the feel of all that ... letting it come without words at first.”
For a further discussion of inviting felt senses, see Cornell (2013, pp. 63-80).