By: Jo Ann Hairston
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Seek opportunities to check in with the group to see how the last response affects them and encourage other group members to add on.
- Visually sweeping the room – periscoping lets the moderator see who is ready to speak next or is having a reaction waiting to be explored.
- 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.
- (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.