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.


One thought on “Mindful Moderating (Part 2)

  1. Peggy Bolinger says:

    The good communication skills jobs piece is absolutely the best I’ve read today.

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