Lesson 5 –   Laugh early – it will all be funny later

Of all the lessons learned over the years, this one has been an uphill battle from the beginning.  It has not been an easy journey to learn how not to take myself so seriously, as I navigate in the murky waters of client and respondent comments and behaviors in focus group settings.

In his book, The Four Agreements, author Don Miguel Ruiz states that there are four agreements that govern a happy life:

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best

As a business owner, sister, daughter, wife, and friend; I have struggled with all four agreements through many stages of my life.  Now, well past the half-way point on my allotted lifeline, I’ve learned the value of agreements 1, 3, and 4 and most of the time can honor those agreements in whichever character role I’m in.  The one that can still challenge me is # 2: Don’t take anything personally.

Moderating can be taxing.  It takes a lot to manage group dynamics in short timeframes while getting clients the insights they need from respondents.  It is also taxing because all of it takes place in a “fishbowl atmosphere.” Often respondents will be engaged in the focus group for sometimes two hours straight – placing the moderator in the role of leader/ teacher. The clients who are observing the group through the one-way mirror sometimes second guess what the moderator is doing.  Some of them will say, “I could do a better job of asking these questions than the moderator” or “This is easy, I could do this.” All the while the moderator is looking inward, making course corrections every 30 seconds, and answering internal questions such as: “Do I have enough to write up this section for the report?” and “Should I move on now because there isn’t much in the answers I’m getting?”

  • This process is intense and often, with that level of intensity, comes a component of seriousness. Often when a client doesn’t feel that the questions on the guide will get them the information they wanted, it can feel personal. It is hard to find the humor anywhere in that much intensity.
  • When the group is over and the client says:  “You should have probed more on that concept,” – it can feel personal – especially when you think you could have done so as well.
  • When a respondent says, “How much longer is this session?” because they are bored with the iterative process of a deeper discussion, it can feel personal and can lead to judging yourself for not keeping them “interested.”

Sometimes if you simply take a step back and examine each of the above examples and laugh first instead of judging yourself, you will see, that in fact, it is not personal.

In the first example: The client and moderator may have spent the early conference planning calls going over the many details of the study purpose and what needs to be covered.  There are times where miscommunication and lack of clarity can occur resulting in the moderator drafting a guide that doesn’t cover all of what the client needs. The clients “dislike” of the guide therefore isn’t personal, it simply means there was a lack of clarity on both ends and that the moderator needs to do what they do best; probe the client a bit more too really find out what is needed.

In the second example: It is the job of the moderator to get the information needed during the focus group and there may be times that the client feels like they did not get all the information they needed based on the questions asked and depth of probing. If you feel you probed all that you could and to the best of your ability, then just say to yourself: “Oh well, the client and I see this differently,” and I know that it is not personal.” If you agree with the client that you didn’t probe as much as you could have, it still isn’t personal. Good time to use the Dali Lama’s mantra:  “It is what it is.”

In the third example: It is not the moderator’s job to “make respondents happy,” but to collect key data so clients can hear perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes from this population.

My Advice

Learn to truly understand everyone has their own opinions and beliefs and when they are expressed it is not a personal attack on you or your abilities.

If you are able to laugh in the moment of the insight – make sure you are not the only one laughing aloud, and if you are, hide that smile behind a hand or a cough cherishing the inner wisdom you have found.


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