Monthly Archives: January 2015

Mindful Moderating (Part 4)


By: Jo Ann Hairston

This is the fourth in a series related to “Mindful Moderating” which will cover the topic of non-directive questions.

From the outside, a well-run focus group looks a lot easier than from the inside. Inside the focus group, the skilled moderator is doing a great deal more than just “chatting with some people.” The moderator’s job is to ask questions that open up respondents so they can more easily access perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes. (POBAs)  There are sharp differences between the way we speak in casual conversation and the way language is used when research rigor is applied to the interview in a qualitative research environment.

In most casual conversations, it often sounds like the asker is only listening to the answers to confirm an opinion they already formed, rather than listening to what the speaker is really saying. Or to put it another way, we want the person that we are speaking to confirm our hypotheses. The questions are often formulated in a pattern that prompts the speaker to answer “Yes” or “No.”

This pattern is insufficient for a research study since the purpose is to seek to uncover the underlying thought processes of the respondent. Too little information is conveyed with a yes/no answer. The other downside of yes/no questions is that they indicate what the moderator is hoping or expecting to hear. Therefore the question being asked is phrased in such a way that the anticipated answer is embedded into the question. At RIVA, we call this manner of questioning “part of answer in question.” (POAIQ) This defeats the purpose of research which is to find out what you don’t already know!

Fortunately, there is another style of interviewing to help respondents access what is below top-of-mind: Non-directive questions. The phrasing and structure of the question allows the respondent to answer in his/her own words and better explain their internal thought processes. The best non-directive questions allow the respondent to describe an activity or behavior and provides plenty of opportunities for the moderator to probe for more depth and understanding.  Additionally, the moderator can draw out other respondents to comment on what they hear; something that is a lot harder to do with a yes/no response. It takes time and practice to learn how to ask questions in a non-directive way but the payoff is considerable. George Silverman, one of the founders of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) says it is not really a group until the participants start talking to each other [1]. A good moderator encourages interaction between and among participants – lobbing in additional questions and probes to keep the conversational ball in play. It is perfectly acceptable to ask respondents from the very beginning to talk to each other, not just to the moderator. Good moderators make this a ground rule at the outset of the focus group [2].

Most moderators are not born knowing how to ask non-directive questions. It is a high level skill that takes dedication and practice to achieve consistently. These kinds of questions operate on the level of opening up the discussion so that individuals can better explain their POBAs about the topic and additionally, provide a pathway for others in the group to weigh in on the matter. They do not have a possible response embedded into the question. Here is an example of a poor way to ask questions of respondents: “Do you prefer to shop for groceries late at night because the stores aren’t so crowded or because they put out fresh produce overnight?” With that scenario in place, it might make it harder for the respondent to tell you the reasons they really shop so late. By embedding POAIQ, the moderator robs respondents of their own experience and teaches them to wait for the moderator to provide cues and clues to answers they desire.

Consider one of these questions:

  • Describe what it is like to shop at your grocery store late at night.”
  • Give me some of the reasons that put you in a grocery store after 11pm.”
  • Think back to the last time you were in a grocery store after 11pm. What situation was in place that led to that visit?”

The kind of answers you might get from one of the above approaches are:

  • “I’m a shift worker and I don’t get off until 11pm so I grocery shop at the end of my work day and that is closer to midnight.”
  • “I have PTSD from time served in the military and crowded stores bring on anxiety attacks!”
  • “I know it sounds crazy but if I leave my husband home with the kids and go to the grocery store around 11pm, it is ‘me time’ and I can shop quickly, without interruption.”

These are much richer answers from participants and they are not trying to make the moderator happy by providing a set of canned responses fed to them and imbedded in the question. Another way to use non-directive questions is to use the “finish the sentence” technique:

  • “So the message you want me to get from this story is______“ (bite your tongue and say nothing and let them fill in the blanks.)
  • “And by that you mean ______________” (let them fill in the blank conversationally)

Additional examples include:

  • “Who can build on this last idea?”
  • “Here’s a problem… What could be done about it?”

Other kinds of non-directive questions serve the purpose of having the respondent describe an activity or a routine:

  • “How do you know when it is time to buy new tires for your car?”
  • “Thanks. What are some different thoughts on the matter?”
  • “Think about a situation in which you______. Tell me about it. How might someone do that?”

There are many more kinds of non-directive types of questions that you can invent on the spot. The secret is to word your questions in such a way that you are making no assumptions about the specific answers you expect to hear, and allow these types of questions to be tossed out to the group to encourage respondents to interact with the topic.

Mindful moderating is not a place you strive to reach.  Rather, it is an ongoing process of observing your own behavior and style and the impact of the same on participants in focus groups and retaining those lessons learned.

[1] See George Silverman’s “Marketing Strategy Secrets.  How to Get Beneath the Surface in Focus Groups”

[2] An operating principle at the RIVA Training Institute’s 201 Course:  Fundamentals of Moderating.