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  • Dr. Sharon Livingston

How Lysistrata Helped Me Uncover Women's Unspoken Needs

Updated: Jun 17


Lysistrata is the comic account of one woman's extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace.

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We researchers talk to people for a number of reasons:


- to find out what they think and feel about our products and services,

- to detect problems that we might be able to solve for them with our capabilities,

- to know what to say when telling them about our ideas

- to get their reactions to messages, concepts and ads,

- to give them what they want while actually providing something they need.


We have questions, the biggest one being why they feel the way they do with regard to all of

the above. But most of the time when you ask “Why” directly the answers given may be logical but are not the real reasons they decide or buy.


It took me a while to realize that not all questions get the results our clients need, particularly

when we’re trying to discover “Why?” You’d think that if we want to know Why, we just pose

the question. For Example: Why did you buy Lysistrata Lip Gloss? How many women who knew the name Lysistrata would admit that they wanted to wear it to feel valued and worthy of having power in society; that they wanted to be more than just sexual objects?


For a little adventure, I did an experiment where I had three concept boards for lip gloss with

Lysistrata Lip Gloss as the name for one of them. Others were Luna Lip Gloss and Glistener Lip Gloss. When those who chose Lysistrata were asked why, here were some of their responses:


“It sounded like it would go one smoothly.”


“Looked like it would be very shiny.”


“I liked the reds.”


“It sounds like it has vitamins.”


All were logical reasons why. The Why answer for Luna was “it was long lasting for nighttime events but with a flat matte finish.” Glistener “would glisten but would also wear off quickly and it came in a tube that would leak.”


In other sessions, I used an indirect approach. I asked participants to imagine the person who would gravitate to Lysistrata Lip Gloss. Here’s one interesting response that was not unlike several others.


“She likes people to see her as sexy but feels misunderstood. She wishes she could be

recognized for her intelligence and credentials but works her attractiveness. That’s all she

really has. She lacks the confidence to show up as herself without added embellishments.”


As she spoke, the woman talking looked down with a bit of . . . embarrassment? Sadness?

I asked her, “What do you wish you could tell this person?”


She became animated. “Who cares what they think!! You’re great just the way you are

without lipstick or make up or low-cut tops. Let the real you shine through. Go ahead. Gain 5

lbs. It’s time we were ok for our insides, not just the way we look.” As she finished talking she

huffed as if saying “so there.” I smiled at her.


Lysistrata was originally performed in Athens in 411 BC. She succeeded in persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their men, but inflamed the battle between the sexes.


411 BC. Hmmmm. How far have we come since then?


But back to “Why?”


Asking Why? is probably the least effective way to understand the reasons behind a belief,

thought or action.


Most people don’t really know why but feel compelled to answer, to give a

reason. And, perhaps more importantly, they may hear the “Why” question as an accusation or admonishment. Remember when you were a kid and your Mom asked, “Why” you did that thing that got you in trouble?


Jessy, why did you pull the dog’s ear?!

Michael, why are you drawing on the wall?

Charlotte, why did you take your little sister’s toy?

Paul, why did you bite Victoria?

Hannah, why did you hide your half-eaten sandwich under your bed?


“Why” questions elicit our defensiveness. It’s a learned response from childhood. To explore

the real reason why, we have to get creative in our approach to asking questions.

A number of the tools and techniques I use in focus groups and one-on-ones originated from

two major sources:


1. Participating in growth groups as a member and noting how the leader encouraged response

2. Following my mother at work and observing how she invited sales from customers;

Here are a couple.


The Power of Asking "What Might it be?"


I first learned the “Might” intervention in a therapy training group. The leader would ask the

person speaking to talk about what precipitated his/her reaction. What did it remind them of?

If the question was met with silence, he would probe, “What might it be?” and wait quietly.

Nine times out of ten the person would open up with an emotional connection that was

meaningful to himself as well as the other members of the group.


When we ask “Why did you do that?” it presupposes that the participant knows the answer.

Moreover, [s]he feels on the spot to come up with the right answer. And it must be a logical

response to protect the ego. We’re not supposed to decide or buy based on emotions, even

though as Marketers we know that people buy based on their feelings and justify with logic.

They report the logical reason and avoid embarrassing themselves with the real reason, e.g., it makes me feel superior to other women, to men; It makes me feel powerful.


But if we ask, “What Might it be?” we open the door to possibilities. It might be a lot of things.

Revealing the possibilities is less stressful to one’s self-image than the one definite answer.

Projective Techniques

Because we want people to be more open to telling their stories, we also employ projective

techniques to uncover the truth. When I asked the woman above to describe the person who

preferred Lysistrata, she began to reveal her own struggles. She is in her own conflict over

gender privileges and roles. But she wouldn’t reveal that if we asked her directly. How I did

probe was to once again use an indirect approach. She said the Lysistrata preferer was Lauren.


I asked her to describe Lauren more in depth – how she spends her day, what she values, her closest friends, work, relationships, where she lived, her home, what we’d see if we went

inside, her community. Then I asked her how similar Lauren was to other women and how

different. Which of these people does she most admire? Most identify with? Least? How so?

Can you see how this could provide greater depth of response and reveal rich sources for

messaging and concept development?


Closed vs. Open Ended Responses

One of my favorite questions comes from watching my Mother behind the counter in our

grocery store. She taught me the value of asking open ended questions.

There was a deli and cooked food section in the back of the store. My mother, the cook and

saleswoman was stationed there to wait on customers. She was great at selling her wares.


First, she’d always offer them a taste. It was always delicious. How could they resist when she asked, “how much may I give you?” Notice, she didn’t say would you like some, inviting a no. They were invited to consider. Similarly, instead of asking, “Anything else?” she’d ask “What else?”


Open ended questions keep the doors open. Closed ended questions shut them. They force a response based on what you offer, but do not necessarily represent the participants true

opinions and feelings.


I learned to ask “What else?” when I’m trying to get more responses. It works. If I want to stop the conversation, I say “Anything else?” and 90 + per cent of the time, they say no and I can move on.


Knowing how to ask the right questions is critical to gaining insights vs. what people believe is the socially desirable response. Do you have a favorite approach to getting at true feelings? I’ll share more of mine AND would love to hear your ideas. Feel free to send to me at: DrSharonLivingston@gmail.com


To true feelings in Marketing and life.

Sharon