Mindful Moderating (Part 1)

By Jo Ann Hairston

This is a first 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 portion of the group that encompasses the introduction given by the moderator at the very beginning of the focus group.

As a focus group convenes, the respondents come together with members unsure of what a focus group is and how it differs from a presentation or other form of group activity. Many are uncertain of what to expect and carry a concern about making a mistake in behavior or performance that will leave them embarrassed or even laughed at by the moderator, other respondents, or the client.

Some moderators express concern about doing “all that talking” up front feeling uncomfortable that all eyes are on them as if they were giving a speech. But thinking about the respondents in a mindful way reveals the true purpose of this portion of the group. That purpose is to project a sense of order and planning into the minds of the participants allowing them to more comfortably relinquish control and guidance into the hands of the group leader. This time used by the moderator may feel like too long when weighed against the sheer number of questions in the guide. However, the payoff comes from a greatly increased comfort level of group members, allowing them to get below top-of-mind answers quicker and deeper.

Trite Phrases: a remark, opinion, or idea overused and consequently of little importance; lacking originality or freshness. (Source: The Oxford Pocket of Current English)

In training thousands of moderators over the last 30+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe this process many times. There are a number of phrases uttered by moderators that are tossed around and passed along from moderator to moderator without anyone examining the phrase to see if it actually makes sense.

“No right or wrong answers.” Among the thousands of students I have trained over the years, this phrase is quite popular. What is meant by saying this? The moderator seems to be telling the respondents they don’t have to give answers that please the moderator or give factual information like that in a test. But if you look at the phrase carefully you see it tells respondents there are no right answers as well as there are no wrong answers, leaving no answers – so what can they say?

Far better to focus on the fact that participants will be talking about Perceptions, Opinions, Beliefs, and Attitudes (POBAs) and there is no way they can be incorrect in their experience. Following are two mindful, non-trite ways to deliver the information that you want to hear their personal experiences. Try them both and see which one feels best for you:

  • “There are no wrong answers”
  • “There are only right answers”

Resist the urge to combine the two thoughts.

“I didn’t design the things you will be seeing and you can say whatever you like – you can’t offend me.” “I won’t get a raise if you like it or fired if you don’t like it.” Somewhere in the lost archives of focus group history, a moderator once mentioned neither getting a raise nor fired as a way to distance themselves from the concepts being shown later in the group. Since then it has been repeated ad infinitum. And, seriously, do you really want to tell respondents that they cannot offend you? A determined respondent can find something to say that is very offensive to you within minutes. These phrases are not wrong, but they are trite and have been repeated so many times the meaning is lost. It might be better to say something like:

  • “I did not design the ideas that you will be seeing tonight and my job today is to report the full range of your reactions to this idea.”

“I want to hear your honest opinions as you look at and discuss these ideas.” If you have to ask someone to be honest, what is your embedded assumption? You are telling them you believe they will probably lie unless specifically asked not to do so. This does not create a place for candor. What creates candor in a focus group is a sense of security and respect for individual points of view, and regular reinforcement that all points of view are valid. Instead try:

  • “I am expecting to hear a variety of comments during the group. You have each had different experiences that you bring to the conversation, so there is no way I would expect you all to tell me the same things. It is important that your experience and view of things be included in the discussion.”

“Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule.” That sounds like a friendly thing to say, right? Except that this phrase takes people out of the mindset of the group and sends them directly into thoughts about what they should or could be doing instead of being in the focus group. Speaking mindfully, it is better to just thank people for being here today.

“You won’t see yourself on YouTube.” Again, this phrase has come up over the years as a way to say the recording is for research purposes only. However, when it is said, it raises this thought in the minds of the respondents: “Hmmm…wonder why she/he said that…I wasn’t worried about where this recording is going until he/she said that….” Now the respondent is thinking about something else other than the next set of comments or instructions the moderator is giving. It would be wise to indicate something like this:

  •  “This session is being recorded so I can write an accurate report of your insights without using any names.”
  • “The session is recorded so I don’t have to take the time to write notes and I can spend my time being a committed listener and hearing your thoughts about the topic.” 

“Don’t worry about the observers.”Like the phrase, “don’t think of pink elephants,” as soon as you say don’t, it is permission for respondents to think of exactly what you don’t want them to think of! Be straight with respondents regarding the role of observers. There are some phrases that might work:

  • “There are members of my project team behind the mirror who cannot wait for the report; they want to be right here to see how this topic unfolds today.”
  • “There are three roles being played out here today: My role is to ask Q’s, your role is to discuss the topic, look at some items and give your opinions. The observer’s role behind the mirror is to listen to how you see the topic so they make sure to include the voice of the consumer in their decision making.”

This approach honors the observers [also called team members, research colleagues or any other phrase other than “client”], rather than diminishing them or implying the observers are there to keep an eye on the moderator. In addition, it doesn’t put any “don’t phrases” in the room.

Instead of rushing through the introductory comments by rote in the mad dash to get to the “real” topic of discussion, moderators would do well to begin paying attention to what it is they are telling respondents at the start of the group instead of just repeating what others have said. Remember also that continued practice of these phrases make them phrased more naturally and uses less time at the start of the group. Mindfulness at this portion of the group sets the stage for richer, more in-depth discussions.

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One thought on “Mindful Moderating (Part 1)

  1. Great piece Jo Ann! Amazing what a big difference small changes in language can make. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

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