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.


QRCA Annual Conference

RIVA believes that moderating and interviewing skills are based on a science and executed as an art, much like a doctor or musician. To that end, we believe that in order to bring your work as a researcher and moderator to excellence, it is necessary to continue to renew, refresh, and recreate yourself.

In our goal to continually explore new and innovative trends and technologies in market research, our CEO Naomi Henderson attended the QRCA annual conference held in New Orleans, LA from October 15-17. QRCA members from all over the world came together to share ideas, connect, and network with each other.

Naomi was also a guest speaker and gave a presentation on working with clients in an effective manner. Some photos from the event:

QRCA book naomi naomi 2

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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RIVA Staff | Amber

Amber Tedesco

What is your full name?

Amber Tedesco


What is your role at RIVA?

Director/VP, Operations for the Research & Training divisions.


How long have you worked here?

16 years


Wow! That’s quite a number of years. What are some of your most memorable experience(s) at RIVA? 

Oh, there are so many. When I was hired, Naomi and Luc came out of Luc’s office dancing down the hallway and offered me my job.  I said yes on the spot and wondered what I had just gotten myself into. It has been an incredible ride!  Others would be some of our RIVA Day events as well as comments I’ve heard during QRE’s. Respondents continue to make me see things in a different perspective.


What aspects of market research do you enjoy the most? 

I love seeing projects all the way through and of course viewing the research sessions themselves.  The information that respondents give is so rich and sometimes just funny.  It’s a real eye opener for many of the topics I’ve viewed.  There is never a dull moment.


What’s one piece of good advice that you’ve received? 

You learn from your mistakes.  If you mess up, you probably won’t do it again.  On the same note, if you do something really well and get recognized for it or realize it works, you’ll do it again.


Finally, what are 3 things we should know about you?

I love being at the beach with my family. It’s one of my true “happy places!”  I volunteer a lot with my kids’ school as well as in the community and I’m a native of the Washington, DC Metro area.

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Doing Research on Difficult or Sensitive Topics

By Naomi Henderson


While no QRE [Qualitative Research Event] is ever “easy,” there are some topics that are not all that challenging to a seasoned moderator. It is not difficult to present several concepts to respondents and have them pick a winner after discussion. It is not particularly challenging to have respondents review several storyboards and pull out the key themes and the RTBs [Reasons To Believe]. It is very easy to talk about what respondents like and don’t like about their last big ticket purchase.

It is a challenge, however, to talk about terminal illness with a cancer patient or talk with family members about losing a child due to an accident or malpractice. It is wrenching to talk to widows about how they plan to manage death benefit payments 90 days after the funeral of a spouse. As well, it is challenging to talk about gay rights, racism, discrimination, and obesity.

It is hard to be dispassionate when a respondent describes what rage feels like when challenged after presenting food stamps at the cashier and being told “baby diapers don’t quality under the food stamp program.” When the respondent is on the program because she lost her job due to grief when her husband died in Afghanistan, leaving her with twins babies. Even seasoned moderators have concerns when topics like these appear on the horizon.

While the four stages of a QRE [intro, rapport/reconnaissance, in-depth investigation, and closure] are the same, regardless of topic, the way one enters and exits a difficult or sensitive topic is very different. The ground rules vary, the requests for altruistic contributions vary, and how a moderator manages his or her own emotions is very different from a classic QRE on purchase intent, interest in a line extension, or choosing a delivery systems for a new lotion.

It is important to start a QRE on the right foot when the topic is difficult or sensitive and one needs to have mechanisms in place for handling both respondent emotions and the moderator’s own emotions. The interventions or projective techniques have to be chosen with care so they can deliver more than top of mind responses but not so deep that the moderator has entered the “therapy zone.”

There are times when moderators should recuse themselves when they don’t feel they can handle the issue or the emotions in a QRE study and to do so with grace and dignity, giving the client alternatives for how the study might be conducted with another researcher. For example, it would be wise for a female moderator to rescuse herself for a study involving convicted murderers in a maximum security prison on the topic of the additional services that could be offered by the Chaplain’s office.

In summary, the possibility arises that every QRE can be a challenge and a seasoned moderator can often rise to the challenge and obtain key information for client decision-making. However, when the topic is difficult or sensitive, a new set of standards and boundaries come into play and a wise moderator knows if they are up to task when the bar is raised.

I will be presenting a webinar on this topic on September 12, 2014. With years of experience moderating difficult and sensitive topics, I am excited for this opportunity to share my own tools and tips for other moderators. If you are interested, please visit our website for more information or email training@rivainc.com.

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Long Live Focus Groups!

By Naomi Henderson


Last week I read with some interest a Research Access article titled, Are Focus Groups an Endangered Species?” As a seasoned, long time moderator, (having led more than 6,000 focus groups since 1978), a trainer of moderators, and an author, I am obviously quite alarmed at the idea that focus groups should be considered a dinosaur or endangered species.

I will wholeheartedly agree that all focus groups don’t work – they can go wrong for a number of reasons and they can be misused by observers. However, every industry has some flukes; the car industry continues to make cars even though some cars are lemons. They don’t stop making cars because some of them are not working as designed.

The first focus groups were held in America in 1937. In the three-quarters of a century since those first groups, focus groups have undergone a number of transformations as a research methodology as outlined in the chart below:

Chart for 5-28-14


The qualitative research game changed a lot over the last seven decades and with the advent of additional technologies, even more adaptations will continue to be made in the qualitative arena.

Every now and then an article comes out in the press entitled: “Is God Dead?” and it goes on to report issues around the moral decay in the world. Those articles seldom report the growth of church membership in times of crisis, the role that religion plays in handling stress, or how religion provides millions with a moral center to face the challenges of a modern world. In the same way, one should be careful in reading a report on the “death of focus groups” as there is always another side to every story. I believe focus groups are, in fact, thriving and will continue to be applied to new situations over the coming years.

Many arguments against focus groups result from a misunderstanding of the limits of focus group qualitative research.

The argument of Inherent bias: I completely agree that there exists a bias in focus groups and that respondents may sway each other. But a skilled moderator knows how to set a context for avoiding bias. Many believe that the purpose of a focus group is to reach consensus…wrong, on every count. Focus groups with 8 participants, handled correctly, can achieve eight different points of view! There is never a reason to reach consensus in a focus group.

The very nature of focus groups is their subjective biases: convenience samples, paid respondents, and a fixed line of questions. So you may wonder, what’s the point? Because what counts in life, cannot be counted. Try to scale or measure love, patriotism, or brand loyalty. Try to count up a tally of what it means to own a dog or keep a Ford Mustang for 40 years. What counts, cannot be quantified and hearing that information trumps any biases that might be present.

The argument of Small sample sizes: There is never a reason to project the findings of 24, 36, or 48 people in focus groups to a universe and make a quantitative summary. The whole point of focus groups is to understand language, motivators, drivers, perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which then can go into the development of quantitative surveys where projections can be made.

To call “small sample sizes” a fault of focus groups is to misunderstand the role of qualitative research. Quantitative research asks the questions, qualitative research questions the answers and provides insights that help decision-makers see the whole picture. Any client that would make a marketing decision based on 30 people is delusional and any moderator who supports that thinking is misguided at best and harmful at worst. Qualitative and quantitative research are like two sides of a hand. The quant is the back where the bones and sinews can be easily seen. The soft palm is qual research that possesses the ability to hold something with care. Both are critical to the whole picture of market research.

The argument of Time consuming and expensive to do it right. Yes, qualitative research takes time and is expensive – I have no argument with that premise. I also know that some of the finer things in life take time and cost a lot of money. A good example is aged whiskey. Moonshine can be made in one day and aged one night. But a good single malt scotch, aged 12 years or more, is smooth and satisfying. A lump of coal burns fast and hot, but that same lump pressed under tons of earth for centuries will turn into a diamond and is priceless. Qualitative research takes time but when you know how the target market thinks, you can sell more products and services. In the long run, a little more time with consumers at the front end of a process can send huge dividends to the bottom line.


Naomi writes more about her experiences as a Master Moderator in her book, Secrets of a Master Moderator.

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Notes from the Director: The Benefit of a Trained In-house Kid and Teen Moderator

RIVA Director, Amber Tedesco, shares from her experiences as a project manager and director of a successful qualitative research company. 

We talk about how kids are our future all the time. The role of kids/teens has changed over the past decade and they have become the partial decision-maker in a lot of households.   Since kids/teens interact with so much – consumer goods, electronics, automobiles, almost everything adults do – it’s a good idea for companies to make sure they get their view point in their marketing research.

If you’ve ever tried to interview a kid/teen you know it’s not the same as interviewing adults. As Pam Goldfarb Liss mentioned in her blog article, the group size and length are different, questions are phrased differently, sessions are timed differently, even the food you serve isn’t the same.

As the director of RIVA, I have seen the benefits of having an in-house person trained to conduct kid/teen qualitative research sessions for their company.   There are those instances when the moderator that was hired for the work becomes ill last minute or has an issue which doesn’t allow them to conduct the sessions. By having an in-house person trained they could step in if needed and are able to work with outside moderators more effectively on the research design.

Since 2012 RIVA has offered a Kid/Teen moderating course that speaks directly to the differences moderators face and how to deal with those changes in qualitative research sessions.  This class is very small – only 4 to a class.  Our upcoming July 9-11, 2014 class has 2 open seats.  Registration is first come/first serve.

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