8 Easy steps to handle Sensitive survey questions diplomatically


Surveys are the best way to get valuable pieces of information, real-time data, or an honest opinion on the ground. Surveys are becoming more and more inevitable in every business. The main motive of a survey is the two-way communication between its creator and the respondent; as a creator, you must know what your respondent wants to answer and what he considered to be sensitive that makes him feel embarrassed or not to talk about. Handling sensitive questions in a survey where the data is most needed, it's clearly an art, but you can excel in that with little insight.

What is a Sensitive survey question?

Any question you ask in a survey that makes your respondent feel awkward or embarrassed to answer is considered sensitive. Personal questions are often asked in a study to get better results and better understand the respondents. Not all personal data questions are sensitive questions; there is a thin line between these two. Some examples of sensitive topics are,

  • Questions about illegal behaviors like alcoholism, illicit drug use or committing a crime,
  • Invasion of privacy, asking a personal question, financial data like income, or asking about sexual behavior
  • Any information that poses a risk when disclosed,
  • Directly or indirectly victimizing the respondent or detailing their health-related issues

Why do surveys ask personal questions?

Making surveys unique and personalized can create interest in your respondent and therefore it increases the survey completion rate, especially in an online survey. In the art of doing that, some survey creators do more than what they need to do in the questions. Some basic demographic questions change into sensitive questions at this point.

Another primary reason is that it is necessary to ask sensitive questions to clearly study the ground reality.

How wrong handling a sensitive question can affect your survey responses?

You can expect 3 main consequences when you wrong handle a sensitive survey question; this happens in most cases,

  1. The respondent simply refuses to answer your survey, or else they will start but not finish it. They can even leave the survey when they feel bad about your choice of questions.
  2. They will finish the survey, but they may choose an option like the ‘Don’t Know’ kind of attitude for most of the sensitive questions.
  3. Even if there is a chance to provide inappropriate responses, that can spoil your entire survey report.

So better we learn to handle sensitive questions more smother way to avoid these situations.

8 steps to politely ask a sensitive question in a survey

#1. Online surveys work better than Paper ones:

When you decide to conduct research or a survey, and that too handling a survey with sensitive questions is much better in online surveys because most respondents do not like to give truthful answers in front of an administrator. People want to admit their not-so-desirable behaviors in a self-administered mode than with an administrator. You can quickly email them or give them a link to your survey.

#2. Research on your respondents overall profile:

Having a primary picture of who your respondents are, is very important to know what questions you will frame in your survey. Of course, people are different, so you can't expect them to understand your intentions. So try to know something about your respondent's common attributes.

#3. Assure the Confidentiality/Anonymity of the survey:

Before starting, you can give a small survey introduction to ensure that the responses will be maintained confidential. This can give the respondents a feeling of trust in your approach and make them comfortable answering sensitive questions efficiently.

You can also do an anonymous survey; an Anonymous survey is a survey where the respondent's Personal Identity is not collected by the researcher or the survey's creator. It gives them confidence that their voices are not connected with their identity, so you can expect an honest answer. BlockSurvey is the most secure survey platform available; it uses Blockchain technology to keep the survey data more secure and private. In addition, BlockSurvey uses Decentralized identity to keep the respondent completely anonymous.

confidential vs anonymous

But it is not like you cannot even have one demographic question to be anonymous. Still, it should not be able to connect with the personal identity of the people answering. If you not running it completely anonymous, openly declare that. Check out how to decide on Confidential Vs. Anonymous surveys.

#4. Clear explanation on the need for Sensitive questions:

Try to explain to the respondent why we need this information, give them reasons behind these sensitive questions. This will make them willingly answer the question rather than have a feeling of being so nosy.

#5. Create a bond and make them understand the 'why?' easily:

Framing a survey is an art. If you genuinely want to get people's honest answers/opinion, try to connect with them first, make them comfortable, and ensure you are asking for a reason. The first few questions in the survey must be something that creates a comfort ness in people and note down the sensitive questions that are going to be in your survey, carefully place them towards the end of the survey.

#6. Use neutral, unbiased language:

Carefully choose the words you use in questions; it should not look biased. Especially when you are questioning Cultural beliefs or Racial issues, you need to clearly stand on the neutral line. If your desirability to either side is established in your questions, it will quickly ruin the whole survey motive.

#7. Range/Spectrum works better than Binary answers:

Try to avoid yes/no based questions; instead, give them a range/spectrum to answer. For example, if you are asking "Did you have drugs?", with yes/no, they can simply choose 'no,' but you can ask "How many times do you had drugs in your life" with answers ranging from "0 times"," 10 times" or "more than 50 times" like so on. This will make them answer quickly.

#8. Use Item count technique:

The Item Count Technique is a split sample design where a random half of the respondents receive a list of behaviors that are not sensitive. The other half receive the same list of behaviors plus the sensitive behavior of interest. Respondents then provide a total count of all the behaviors they have done but do NOT indicate which specific behaviors they have done.

Researchers then compare the totals in the group that received the sensitive item to those in the group that did not receive the sensitive item to estimate the proportion of respondents who endorsed the sensitive behavior.

Finally, getting answered for Sensitive questions depends upon the framework of the survey. Always start slow and increase the intensity of the questions. Making people comfortable is the only way; just make sure you do that.

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