Mindful Moderating (Part 7)

Keep Your Eye on the Prize – The Downside of Note Taking While Moderating

By: Jo Ann Hairston

If Quantitative Market Research (QTMR) tells us how many, then Qualitative Market Research (QLMR) tells us the drivers and motivations.  It describes the details of the qualities and characteristics of a product, service, idea, or advertisement.  It is descriptive and indicative, not predicative.

Qualitative research has some distinct characteristics including [1]:

  • it has a strong orientation to everyday life and events
  • data is collected in their natural context; there is no attempt to change the research situation or control it
  • the diversity of participant responses is valuable
  • the role of the researcher is important: the ability of the researcher to reflect upon what he/she is seeing and/or hearing is part of the research process rather than something to be excluded
  • data is gathered by flexible, open-ended methods; there is no rigid questionnaire or grid

Given these characteristics, the role of the moderator cannot be underestimated. Michael Quinn Patton states the moderator is the “instrument of research” rather than the survey document as used in QTMR.

The moderator needs to actively listen to the respondent to encourage the respondent to keep going and use non-committal prompts and probes to help the participant to elaborate and expand.  That elaboration and further expression by the respondent is what adds the luster to QLMR. Contrasting with QTMR where interviewees are asked questions and then supplied with a list of answers to choose from, QLMR permits the participant to answer in his/her own words, allowing the moderator to do as much digging as  necessary to expose the POBAs (perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes) that are driving the response.  Moderators are seeking to uncover what the respondent means by what was said without any filters.

It makes sense then that the moderator needs to have his/her attention directly on the respondent and what is being said, as well as what is left unsaid, so that pertinent probes and follow up questions are inserted in a timely manner.  The other place that can appropriately capture the moderator’s attention is on other respondents in order to know where the moderator should look next for agreement or counter opinions.

Taking notes and jotting down key phrases to go back and probe on later or good phrases that would be relevant in the final report is mis-timed.  Interviewing respondents is the main job for the moderator.  Thinking about and doing activities that will make the final report easier to write takes away from the key purpose of actively engaging with respondents in the moment to help create the fullest picture of POBAs possible.  Analysis is best left to be done after groups have ended.

It takes mindful action to resist the desire to jot something interesting down in the moment it was said, but this behavior is reminiscent of school note-taking behavior.  In fact, many people report that they don’t feel comfortable listening to someone else talk without having a pen in their hands.  However, this is one of those instances that emphasize the difference between a qualitative interview and conversation between two people.  In the interview, the focus should be on being clear about understanding what participants are saying and drawing them out.

Every time the moderator stops to make a note, it actively breaks the flow of the conversation. In that moment, all activity stops while the thought is transferred onto a piece of paper.  Current research consistently states that people don’t multi-task nearly as well as they think they do and, in fact, may lose up to 40% in productivity when switching back and forth between two different activities.  At RIVA, we believe that the best moderating occurs when the moderator makes the decision to “be with people and not with paper.”  Focus group facilities invest a lot of money in audio systems that can clearly capture what is being said in the room. Even portable digital recorders make an accurate record for later review and analysis.  Let the recording capture all the juicy thoughts for later review and resist the urge to multi-task by interviewing and note-taking at the same time. For many, the solution is to work with a separate note-taker and prep them to take notes in a style that supports easy transition to analysis and report writing.

Keep your eye on the prize: full and complete engagement in the QRE in the present and not on the final report.

[1] Flick U, von Kardoff E, Steinke I (2004) A Companion to Qualitative Research. Sage Publications, London

Mindful Moderating (Part 6)

Getting Those Ideas Out Into the Open-

The Beauty of Mind Mapping

By: Jo Ann Hairston

Even the writer who finds the process effortless can have moments when they would happily write something if only they knew what it was they were supposed to be writing! Every writer can use help getting their thoughts organized whether it’s for a moderator’s guide, a final report or a planning session with your team.  Thinking back to my days in school, I can still hear the teachers pressing us to write an outline before starting a term paper or a book report and I always resisted.  How much more fun would it have been to have been shown mind mapping, also known as clustering, webbing, spider charts, etc.

Mind mapping in some form has been around for hundreds of years with the common belief that Albert Einstein, Da Vinci, Churchill and other big thinkers are reputed to use some version of graphic picturing in developing their theories and projects. Since the 1970’s, the term “Mind Mapping” is associated with Tony Buzan, a British psychologist, author and general personality.  He defines mind mapping as a visual thinking tool that can be applied to all cognitive functions, especially memory, learning, creativity and analysis. Mind Mapping is a process that involves a distinct combination of imagery, color and visual-spatial arrangement. The technique maps out your thoughts using keywords that trigger associations in the brain to spark further ideas. When I refer to mind mapping, I usually define it as a visual representation of all your thoughts on one page.  It is non-linear, meaning you can jump over to any topic to add to it as additional thoughts occur. You may also begin a whole new topic area at any time.

At RIVA, we teach about the different styles of organization that lead to creating Moderator guides.  Like the outlines taught by legions of school teachers, one way of planning a guide is to work top down.  You start with the main idea, develop the subtopics and fill in the gaps with details in a linear progression.  The alternative is bottom up thinking. Generate as many pieces or segments related to the idea as possible. After studying or reflecting on your mind map, organize them into a pattern that makes sense according to the project goals.


Creating the Mind Map

Traditional mind maps start with colored markers and a page laid horizontally in landscape format.  In the center of the paper is a box with the theme of the mind map written in.  For a moderator’s guide, this would be the purpose statement; for a final report it would be the key takeaway, e.g., respondents found the 2nd concept the most appealing; for this blog it would be the power of mind-mapping for market researchers.  Then as notions or ideas come to mind, they can be added in any order desired.

Tony Buzan recommends the following:

  • Lines that connect the boxes should be arched or curved rather than straight lines
  • For each new topic area, use a new colored box. It doesn’t matter where it  is placed on  the page.
  • Work in a generally clockwise pattern adding new boxes where needed.
  • It is important to limit boxes to 1-2 words which will foster more creative thinking and new relationships between words. When using mind-mapping to write a guide, it seems best to write the themes/topics/issues to be covered and use 1-2 words to indicate the direction of the questions. It doesn’t work to write the actual questions on the mind-map.
  • Use as many graphics, drawings and symbols as desired
  • Develop your own style

While there are software programs to assist [see below], early work with mind-mapping to learn the technique is best done by hand.  The primary reason:   Software programs involve typing and there is the desire to edit/correct when typing which slows down the “popcorn thinking “effect that is at the heart of mind-mapping:  allowing the brain to branch out over disparate data elements.  Quickly recording them by hand stops the mind from “fixing and editing” as you think.  When you’ve mastered the process – you can choose to use software or stay with colored markers!

Below is an example of a portion of a mind map developed for how I see and think about Houston, TX where I live.  It was created using a free software mapping program called SimpleMind +



Other things to consider when writing the mind map:

  • Avoid censoring thoughts and labeling them as non-productive at the time you are working, just add them in
  • Keep writing and creating or adding to the boxes as long as the ideas are still coming
  • If you are lucky, you will get to surprise yourself with some of your thinking as you reflect on the whole.



There is a great deal of information about mind mapping readily available.  For starters take a look at http://imindmap.com/company/, the website associated with Tony Buzan’s organization.  It offers classes and workshops and offers a free online class in mind mapping as well as a free trial program.  Another resource is http://www.mind-mapping.org/ a very dense website chock full of articles about the benefits of mind mapping and an extensive review of (paid) software. There are also lots of apps available to check out as well.  Try a few and see what works best with your style and needs.  And don’t neglect pen and paper or colored markers and the hand drawn map as an option either.


Mindful Moderating (Part 5)


By: Jo Ann Hairston

Work Smart, Not Hard

Growing up I heard this phrase, “work smart not hard” on a regular basis all the time around our house. As one of three children with a father in the military and a very organized mother, this phrase could be heard daily. We were told it is not enough to just do the work you have to do, but to first think about your objective and steps needed to accomplish the goal and then get to work. Seeing both the big picture and the details as a pair is not a comfortable skill set for many.  Most of us are best at seeing one or the other.  However it is a blend of the two that is the most effective for working smart, not hard.

One aspect of working smart is eliminating redundant effort, and to avoid confusing “being busy” for getting a lot accomplished. For example, if there are multiple projects underway simultaneously (who doesn’t have that going on?) you may spend a lot of time in the day getting caught up in finding the particular item or iteration of a document. One of my so-called “gifts” is the ability to make individual sheets of paper grow or morph into something else, enabling them to hide and avoid detection when I need it.  That can mean even more time needed to find the appropriate version of the document you are working on.

Example:  You have projects A, B, C and D on your plate.  They are all active but are in different stages/have different deadlines.

  • Project A – The groups have been done and you are waiting for transcripts before writing the report.
  • Project B – The groups will be conducted in the next two days and the client is asking for all kinds of last minute changes to the guide.
  • Project C – The groups are in two weeks and you have the recruit to supervise, draft guide to prepare and facility logistics to finalize.
  • Project D – The project has just been announced and you have a proposal to prepare, bids to obtain, recruiting criteria to confirm, etc.

Any one of these projects has the potential to generate multiple documents that are written, sent to the client, revised, resent to the client. (Repeat as often as needed)  When someone calls or emails with a request, changes or revisions, I want to be as efficient as possible in finding and amending the correct document and sending it quickly on its way.

Some moderators are very organized with only one project folder open at a time and carefully putting the folder away before working on the next one.  My style is to have all folders out on the desk and to reach for the one called for at the moment needed. I recently had a project with two sets of clients in different states and at different stages along the continuum of a project.  As the guide was developed and sent for review, it became clear that all members on each team were not up to speed on the latest changes made or hadn’t opened the latest email.  Further, the changes to the guide were happening more than once a day.  The normal way I mark the guide is to put the most recent version date in the footer on the left side. (Revised 5/27/15)  It became apparent that what needed to be added to the version date was the time of day as well. (Revised: 5/27/15 11:51 a.m.) This meant we could quickly compare footer notes and review/comment on the same version.  Some moderators like to indicate which iteration by saying version #5.  I can see how that might work, but I worry about miscounting the versions.  For me, date and time seem to work.

Another part of working smart is the way the moderator’s guide is organized.  RIVA writes “universal guides” that can be accessed by anyone on the project team and the intent of the question or the activity planned is shown fully along with instructions to the moderator to initiate a specific activity at a certain point during the discussion.  Full sentences and instructions inside a “universal guide” provide these advantages:

  • The client is crystal clear about your plan to obtain the information they are seeking. They understand your strategy easily when they review the guide.  This tends to eliminate a number of questions during the guide review call and rewrite process.
  • If the project calls for multiple moderators, a universal guide helps everyone operate with the same point of view.
  • Since one project can occur in the same time frame as another project, it is very likely this guide will be set aside briefly for other work and returned to in a timely manner prior to conducting the groups. Being able to read the whole question as well as a description of each planned activity will get me up to speed very quickly and prepare to conduct the groups efficiently and effectively, without relying on my memory of my original intent.

To avoid being overwhelmed with too many words on the page, a RIVA guide is generously spaced and makes use of bolding or different colors to provide emphasis or a reminder to pay particular attention.  Since the moderator only has seconds to glance at the page to confirm direction of the topic, this is NOT the time to conserve paper and get as many words on the page as possible. White space actually helps draw the user’s eye to the text. The blank area (white space) forces the eye to focus on the text. White space will influence the flow and readability of content. At the risk of recommending the obvious (you’d be surprised how many don’t take this step), take the time to number the pages of the guide as well as numbering the individual questions within each of the subtopics. Again, this level of detail makes the client review meetings move along much more efficiently when all can refer to the same element with clarity.

My last tip on guide development is to figure out a template that embraces your style and be consistent in using it.  What works for me is bolded, centered subheads with the time allotted showing on the 2nd line of the subhead. As well, I make sure all pages are numbered and all questions are numbered.  It makes me a little crazy to see a guide with a long list of bullet points all left adjusted. How do you know where you are when you glance down? It also works to indicate probes with a double indent and bolded so I can use them if needed.

In summary, my childhood lesson of “work smart, not hard” seems to have filtered into my adult life as a moderator.  Who knew that my parents would pass on their DNA to me and some effective life skills as well?

Work Smart, Not Hard

Mindful Moderating (Part 4)


By: Jo Ann Hairston

This is the fourth in a series related to “Mindful Moderating” which will cover the topic of non-directive questions.

From the outside, a well-run focus group looks a lot easier than from the inside. Inside the focus group, the skilled moderator is doing a great deal more than just “chatting with some people.” The moderator’s job is to ask questions that open up respondents so they can more easily access perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes. (POBAs)  There are sharp differences between the way we speak in casual conversation and the way language is used when research rigor is applied to the interview in a qualitative research environment.

In most casual conversations, it often sounds like the asker is only listening to the answers to confirm an opinion they already formed, rather than listening to what the speaker is really saying. Or to put it another way, we want the person that we are speaking to confirm our hypotheses. The questions are often formulated in a pattern that prompts the speaker to answer “Yes” or “No.”

This pattern is insufficient for a research study since the purpose is to seek to uncover the underlying thought processes of the respondent. Too little information is conveyed with a yes/no answer. The other downside of yes/no questions is that they indicate what the moderator is hoping or expecting to hear. Therefore the question being asked is phrased in such a way that the anticipated answer is embedded into the question. At RIVA, we call this manner of questioning “part of answer in question.” (POAIQ) This defeats the purpose of research which is to find out what you don’t already know!

Fortunately, there is another style of interviewing to help respondents access what is below top-of-mind: Non-directive questions. The phrasing and structure of the question allows the respondent to answer in his/her own words and better explain their internal thought processes. The best non-directive questions allow the respondent to describe an activity or behavior and provides plenty of opportunities for the moderator to probe for more depth and understanding.  Additionally, the moderator can draw out other respondents to comment on what they hear; something that is a lot harder to do with a yes/no response. It takes time and practice to learn how to ask questions in a non-directive way but the payoff is considerable. George Silverman, one of the founders of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) says it is not really a group until the participants start talking to each other [1]. A good moderator encourages interaction between and among participants – lobbing in additional questions and probes to keep the conversational ball in play. It is perfectly acceptable to ask respondents from the very beginning to talk to each other, not just to the moderator. Good moderators make this a ground rule at the outset of the focus group [2].

Most moderators are not born knowing how to ask non-directive questions. It is a high level skill that takes dedication and practice to achieve consistently. These kinds of questions operate on the level of opening up the discussion so that individuals can better explain their POBAs about the topic and additionally, provide a pathway for others in the group to weigh in on the matter. They do not have a possible response embedded into the question. Here is an example of a poor way to ask questions of respondents: “Do you prefer to shop for groceries late at night because the stores aren’t so crowded or because they put out fresh produce overnight?” With that scenario in place, it might make it harder for the respondent to tell you the reasons they really shop so late. By embedding POAIQ, the moderator robs respondents of their own experience and teaches them to wait for the moderator to provide cues and clues to answers they desire.

Consider one of these questions:

  • Describe what it is like to shop at your grocery store late at night.”
  • Give me some of the reasons that put you in a grocery store after 11pm.”
  • Think back to the last time you were in a grocery store after 11pm. What situation was in place that led to that visit?”

The kind of answers you might get from one of the above approaches are:

  • “I’m a shift worker and I don’t get off until 11pm so I grocery shop at the end of my work day and that is closer to midnight.”
  • “I have PTSD from time served in the military and crowded stores bring on anxiety attacks!”
  • “I know it sounds crazy but if I leave my husband home with the kids and go to the grocery store around 11pm, it is ‘me time’ and I can shop quickly, without interruption.”

These are much richer answers from participants and they are not trying to make the moderator happy by providing a set of canned responses fed to them and imbedded in the question. Another way to use non-directive questions is to use the “finish the sentence” technique:

  • “So the message you want me to get from this story is______“ (bite your tongue and say nothing and let them fill in the blanks.)
  • “And by that you mean ______________” (let them fill in the blank conversationally)

Additional examples include:

  • “Who can build on this last idea?”
  • “Here’s a problem… What could be done about it?”

Other kinds of non-directive questions serve the purpose of having the respondent describe an activity or a routine:

  • “How do you know when it is time to buy new tires for your car?”
  • “Thanks. What are some different thoughts on the matter?”
  • “Think about a situation in which you______. Tell me about it. How might someone do that?”

There are many more kinds of non-directive types of questions that you can invent on the spot. The secret is to word your questions in such a way that you are making no assumptions about the specific answers you expect to hear, and allow these types of questions to be tossed out to the group to encourage respondents to interact with the topic.

Mindful moderating is not a place you strive to reach.  Rather, it is an ongoing process of observing your own behavior and style and the impact of the same on participants in focus groups and retaining those lessons learned.

[1] See George Silverman’s “Marketing Strategy Secrets.  How to Get Beneath the Surface in Focus Groups”   http://mnav.com/focus-group-center/bensurf-htm/

[2] An operating principle at the RIVA Training Institute’s 201 Course:  Fundamentals of Moderating.

Mindful Moderating (Part 3)

By: Jo Ann Hairston

focus group

This is a third of a series titled Mindful Moderating that will look at different areas of moderating and possibly challenge some beliefs of qualitative researchers. This article addresses the concept of the importance of Enriching Group Discussions – Promoting Cross-Talk.

Sometimes in a focus group, a moment arises when respondents are engaged in a discussion among themselves, building and piggybacking off each other’s comments without interference from the moderator. Instead of having the moderator ask question after question, only 1-2 questions are needed to start creating comments one after the other. We call this a roll; multiple responses to a single question. This activity is quite desirable as long as it exists in a context of group objectives, adheres to the ground rules, the discussion is on target for the baseline question asked and is relevant to the study purpose.

The secret to creating a roll is in promoting a pattern of cross-talk between respondents without deteriorating into a series of side conversations.  It takes conscious mindful behaviors on the part of the moderator to generate an environment conducive to cross talk. First, there are some objectives for the moderator when conducting groups:

  • The job of the moderator is to fully understand what a participant has to say in response to the question. However, the probes and follow-ups must continue because each individual response is what leads to the moderator having a sense of what the group has to say about the question on the table. It is not possible for everyone to answer every question, but the moderator can get a sense of the group by hearing from approximately 2/3 of the participants in the room.
  • New moderators are often thrilled to have anyone answer their questions and when it happens, they may mentally check off the question as answered and move on. However, the real job of the moderator is to be able to create an environment that allows the group’s response to any question on the guide. To do that, multiple responses are needed.

There are several ways to increase the chances of having the group interact more with the topic beyond top-of-mind answers:

  1. Set it up in the disclosures and ground rules that it is desirable for participants to interact with each other, comment, and piggyback or not agree with a response given by another group member. This is encouraged as long as other ground rules are intact, such as, avoiding side conversations or attacking another’s viewpoint. Stress the need for respondents to speak their own truth, even if they are the only one who feels that way.
  2. It is important to tell respondents, in the ground rules, to direct questions and comments not only to the moderator, but to the group as a whole.
  3. Seek opportunities to check in with the group to see how the last response affects them and encourage other group members to add on.
  4. Visually sweeping the room – periscoping lets the moderator see who is ready to speak next or is having a reaction waiting to be explored.
  5. One of the very best questions to encourage shy participants or those who are not in agreement to come forth is, “Who sees it differently?” This probe reinforces that all points of view are valid and creates an easier environment for disparate opinions to be offered with no risk.
  6. (Secret tip) When moderators are working very hard to secure more comments from other group members, it is very common to hear does anyone else have something to add? Or anything else? And often the answer is no. But when the moderator asks, who else? Or what else? There is an implied expectation that the moderator feels there is more to say on the topic. This is a positive prediction that the conversation will move forward and it offers more places for group members to chime in and add their own opinions which in turn, produces more chances for developing a roll.

Another area to be explored is the role of non-directive questions and probes. Describing qualitative research as open-ended and quantitative as closed-ended is a simple distinction but not one that automatically produces good discussion among respondents. If the moderator is accustomed to asking do you questions in conversations outside of the focus group, there will be a similar tendency to do so during focus groups. Do you questions often lead to providing the respondent with options for answering and practically guarantees a leading question where part of the answer is embedded in the question (POAIQ). What’s needed is command over a list of non-directive questions that make no assumptions about what the moderator expects to hear, as well as, eliminates a tendency to lead the conversation in an overly specific direction. The next edition of Mindful Moderating will look more closely at the process of non-directive questions.

Mindful Moderating (Part 2)

By: Jo Ann Hairston

This is a second of a series called Mindful Moderating that will look at different areas of moderating and possibly challenge some beliefs of researchers. This article addresses the concept of the importance of creating rapport in focus groups.

Rapport is a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well. Other features include:

  • Relation, especially one of mutual trust and affinity.
  • Getting along well with another person or group of people, by having things in common. This makes the communication process easier and usually more effective.

One of the primary reasons that good moderators are so effective in obtaining POBAs (Perceptions, Opinions, Beliefs and Attitudes) from respondents is due to a conscious effort made by the moderator to create a connection with each respondent and also the group as a whole. This connection or rapport is essential. Consider the context of focus groups:

  • Respondents generally do not know each other.
  • Respondents may guess the general purpose of the group discussion but not the specific intent of the desired research outcomes .
  • Respondents have attended with the idea of “helping” companies understand the consumer viewpoint but are not sure how they can help.
  • Within the 2-hour window, the moderator needs to make individual and group connections/relationships and move the group through the discussion of the client’s research purpose through specific areas of inquiry.

Qualitative Market Research (QLMR) is used to obtain POBAs from participants. POBAs do not necessarily lie at top-of-mind, so it takes a skilled leader to create the opportunity for respondents to access below top-of mind. This is what creates the richness of discussion as compared to survey research.

Consider the minimum elements that must be in place to create rapport: Chief among these is honor and respect for the respondent and for the opportunity to enter their world, not the reverse. Rapport is the medium through which group members allow the moderator into their interior spaces and explore with them their individual observations and feedback.

At the core, each participant needs to know that the moderator respects them, finds them likable and carries no judgments about their views and opinions.  These traits are the cornerstone for development of affinity – a sympathy founded on community of interests.  In addition to respect, the moderator must be likable/approachable, genuinely interested in what group participants are saying, and willing to “connect” with respondents for that purpose. Simple things like eye contact, leaning forward, and continually asking for full expression and understanding of intent demonstrate interest and openness to hear from each group member.

These qualities are not dependent on personality or style; they do not solely require an outgoing, bubbly gregarious approach. They are just as effective in a quieter, more reserved personality. What’s really required is for the moderator to put him/herself “out there” to enter the world of the respondent. That starts with the moderator making the first overture.

How is this overture accomplished?  Skilled moderators make it look easy, however there are some specific behaviors attached to this skill set:

  • Experienced moderators know that rapport begins whenever the participants first see you. This means if you run into them in the lobby of the facility or in the restroom make an effort to smile and nod cordially.
  • Some moderators prefer to go out and meet respondents in the waiting room before the group starts to introduce themselves and thank them for their participation. For moderators who are a little bit slow to warm up, this approach lessens the feeling of nervousness when meeting strangers. When participants enter the room, there is an instant of mutual recognition – “I’ve seen that person before!” and allows the initial hurdle of breaking the ice to be accomplished in a more casual and informal manner.
  • As the group is finding seats and refreshments, general small talk by the moderator sends the signal this is a relaxed gathering and the conversation allows the participants to see the moderator as a person – not just a researcher. This raises the trust factor for the moderator.

Some topics that nearly always spark small talk and response include:  weather/traffic/local landmarks of note/shopping/dining choices, etc. If the moderator is sports minded, a quick chat about local teams and perceived chances to be in playoffs or winners in the final games are also good topics.

Once the group commences, the moderator begins the transition from regular person to group leader by delivering ground rules and disclosures yet introducing self in the same way the group is asked to respond. The transition is completed as the data related portion of the guide is reached.  By this point the moderator should be seen as warm and interested in what respondents have to say, and by asking questions within the framework of the world of group members, having successfully removed themselves from the “data pool” by refraining from inserting their personal comments to the topics under discussion.  If the moderator can be seen as someone friendly, interested and trustworthy – rapport takes very little time to establish.

Master Moderators have learned that while the secret of rapport is a close and harmonious relationship, it doesn’t work if it isn’t based on an authentic affinity that will then lead to mutual trust.