Threading on Thin Ice: Asking Sensitive Survey Questions

How do you ask sensitive questions on an online survey?

  1. Use neutral, unbiased language
  2. State your intentions clearly
  3. Give them a chance to opt out, if they do not like your intentions
  4. Make sure you never make them feel vulnerable
  5. Start with a casual question that will get your respondent in the right mood to think about the sensitive topic
  6. Slowly build up to the sensitive topic by making the questions less and less casual


Using website survey tools is one of the best ways to gather accurate data from a significantly large portion of your target market. But because of the technological nature of the tool, asking sensitive questions on this medium can feel more robotic. Therefore, asking such a query must be done more carefully – particularly online – to not come across as offensive. This is important to learn, especially when you need to gather information about a touchy subject.

Do you find yourself in this situation? If your answer is yes, then you don’t have to fret because here are some tips that will teach you how to properly and respectfully ask such questions in your survey:


Online vs Offline

Online vs. Offline

First of all, you must understand that conversing in person is completely different from talking to someone via digital means (i.e. text, email, website surveys). In real life, you could count on both of your words and your actions speak for you. After all, your body movements and tone of voice can do a lot to convey your intentions and emotions.

However, if you are communicating with people through digital means, then your true intentions can easily get lost or misinterpreted. Because of the lack of a human voice, your respondents can read sensitive questions in a way that is offensive to them. Therefore, you are immediately turning them away from answering your survey.

As you can see, it is very important for you to be clear with your intentions and emotions through the words you use. Always take into account that tone and body language is not translatable onto online questions.


Start Casually and Build from There

When asking a sensitive or personal question, it is very important that you do not start with that question first. This will make your respondent feel vulnerable and drop out of answering your survey. Instead, start with a casual question and slowly build up from there.

Use the topic of mental illness as an example. Being a touchy subject, it’s best not to start with a question like “Where would you say you got your mental illness from?” Such wording is very invasive because of how personal and assuming it is. Instead, you can start with “How is your health today?” This question is not only very casual, but gets the respondent in the mindset to think about his well-being. From there, you can build up to asking about their doctor’s appointment, whether it is a physical or mental checkup, what type of mental illness it is, and where the illness stemmed from.

By starting casually, you get to build rapport with the respondent and bring his guard down slowly. This slow lead up to the sensitive question is what will make them open to answering truthfully and give you the data you need.


Be Clear About Your Intentions
Be Clear About Your Intentions

Be Clear About Your Intentions

As mentioned above, you have to be clear about your intentions because you don’t have tone and body language on your side. Thus, you must be clear about why you need their response. Say your intentions and, from there, ask if they wish to continue. If they do, then great; but if not, then you can amicably stop the process.

You can take this as an example: you want to gather information about the drinking habits of people in order to study the effects of regular alcohol intake on work productivity. By blatantly asking “How often do you drink?” you could seem too invasive and aggressive, which will turn people off. Instead, state your intentions first and then give them an option to continue or back out. When doing this, word everything neutrally so it does not feel biased.

A good example of this would be: “Hello, we are conducting a study on the positive and negative effects of alcohol consumption on productivity. Would you like to take part in this research to help us bring insightful information to the public?”

Respondents can say no which is completely fine. They will appreciate that you gave them a choice to opt out and, when they do, they won’t take it personally. However, if they do accept your offer, then you can get your answer to your question, “How often do you drink?” You can also ask other related queries, such as questions about the nature of his job, how many days he works, how difficult his job is, why he drinks, if he feels that drinking helps him to unwind after a long day, etc.


Key Takeaway

Successfully getting answers to sensitive questions is all about the build-up. Start by making the respondent comfortable with the situation. Use that comfort to slowly go into more sensitive territory while not making the person feel vulnerable. If they feel like you care, then you will get the answers you want.

Sean Si is the CEO and Founder of SEO Hacker and Qeryz. A start-up, data analysis and urgency junkie who spends his time inspiring young entrepreneurs through talks and seminars. Check out his personal blog where he writes about starting up two companies and life in general.

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