From the Archives: Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

On Thursdays, we re-post an article from our archives. Good moderating principles never go out of style. 

Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

By Naomi Henderson

Originally Posted: 31 December 2012

Recently I’ve been thinking about principles related to the questions that I ask of respondents in focus groups.  I know to honor these rules:

  1. Write short questions
  2. Keep probes simple , direct, and relevant to what has been said
  3. Avoid leading questions

I’ve been focusing on asking the best question to get the data that my client needs for decision-making.  One of the areas that continues to be a challenge for me is what data I obtain when I ask each of these questions:

  1. What do you think of _____________________?
  2. What are your feelings about  _______________?

I known when I ask the first question, I’m looking for a rational response based on some “thought pattern” in the minds of respondents.  For example:

Q:  What do you think of the idea of a Starbucks that is only a tea salon?  [No coffee to be served.]

A:  I think that is a good idea for tea drinkers – they will think that is cool.

 A.  I think it won’t fly as a retail store, because there are so many more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers and you can already get a good cup of tea at a Starbucks.

 A.   I think that idea may work better in England than in the US.

 All the above are rational answers, based on a little bit of “thinking” about the question that was posed.  Probing  into any of the answers will help to get below “top-of-mind” responses from their original answers.

 However, when the question is phrased with the word “feelings”, answers don’t always come out as “emotions.”

Q: What are your feelings about Starbucks opening a tea only shop? [No coffee to be served.]

A.  I think that might work – there are more tea drinkers these days.

A: That might not work for Starbucks – they have an image as a “coffee place” —  and they have worked hard to set a certain standard in the coffee world.

A. I feel it is a poor idea for the US….maybe it would work in England.

Notice in the second set of questions about Starbucks Tea Salon when respondents were asked what they felt about the idea:  One person said “I think” and another gave a rational response rather than an emotional one and the final person used the word “feel” but the response was really what he/she was thinking.

Insight:  Simply adding the word “feel” to a question may not always lead to an emotion being expressed.  I’ve noticed that respondents have no trouble telling you what they think, but they don’t do such a good job telling you what they feel, just based on having that word in the question.

Best Practice: Before I write questions in this category, I ask myself:  “What do I want to know…their thinking and rational process or their emotions?”  

When the answer is the former:  I have no problem with a simple question that starts with “What are your thoughts about…….?”

However, when I want emotions I set up the category a bit more and then ask for emotions specifically.



Set Them Up: In a moment, I’ll be asking you some question’s that talk about feelings or emotions. Before I start with those questions tell me some emotions that anyone can experience in the course of a day; from rising in the morning to getting to work – working with colleagues or folks out in the world – getting back home, dealing with family members. I have ten fingers…give me some emotions that come to mind.”

Respondents often give these emotions:   anger, fear, joy, sadness, depression, excitement, love, panic, rage, lust, disgust, frustrated, etc.

Task: I then pick 2-3 of the common answers and ask:  “Where in your body, does that emotion often reside?”  I often pick anger and love and they typically say: “My stomach or my heart” as answers.

Next Step: At this point I then say:  “Great, you have the emotions down, now use what we just did to help get to the emotions that arise when I ask or show you _______________.”

Probing: Then I pose the questions related to feelings/emotions and they might sound like this:

1. What feelings/emotions do you associate with going to a car showroom and looking at different cars in which you have an interest in purchasing?

2. What is the first emotion/feeling that comes up when a salesman says: “We don’t carry that product in this hardware store.”

3. Tell me what you feel like inside when a boss says – “Your work is not up to our standards.”

Net Results: Once respondents have had a chance to see how easy it is to categorize feelings/emotions, they can then talk about those two elements quickly and allow the moderator to get below top-of-mind answers and avoid the risk to default back to “rational” answers.

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7 thoughts on “From the Archives: Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

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  3. Anonymous says:

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