Tag Archives: moderating

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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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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From the Archives: Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

On Thursdays, we re-post an article from our archives. Good moderating principles never go out of style. 

Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

By Naomi Henderson

Originally Posted: 31 December 2012

Recently I’ve been thinking about principles related to the questions that I ask of respondents in focus groups.  I know to honor these rules:

  1. Write short questions
  2. Keep probes simple , direct, and relevant to what has been said
  3. Avoid leading questions

I’ve been focusing on asking the best question to get the data that my client needs for decision-making.  One of the areas that continues to be a challenge for me is what data I obtain when I ask each of these questions:

  1. What do you think of _____________________?
  2. What are your feelings about  _______________?

I known when I ask the first question, I’m looking for a rational response based on some “thought pattern” in the minds of respondents.  For example:

Q:  What do you think of the idea of a Starbucks that is only a tea salon?  [No coffee to be served.]

A:  I think that is a good idea for tea drinkers – they will think that is cool.

 A.  I think it won’t fly as a retail store, because there are so many more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers and you can already get a good cup of tea at a Starbucks.

 A.   I think that idea may work better in England than in the US.

 All the above are rational answers, based on a little bit of “thinking” about the question that was posed.  Probing  into any of the answers will help to get below “top-of-mind” responses from their original answers.

 However, when the question is phrased with the word “feelings”, answers don’t always come out as “emotions.”

Q: What are your feelings about Starbucks opening a tea only shop? [No coffee to be served.]

A.  I think that might work – there are more tea drinkers these days.

A: That might not work for Starbucks – they have an image as a “coffee place” —  and they have worked hard to set a certain standard in the coffee world.

A. I feel it is a poor idea for the US….maybe it would work in England.

Notice in the second set of questions about Starbucks Tea Salon when respondents were asked what they felt about the idea:  One person said “I think” and another gave a rational response rather than an emotional one and the final person used the word “feel” but the response was really what he/she was thinking.

Insight:  Simply adding the word “feel” to a question may not always lead to an emotion being expressed.  I’ve noticed that respondents have no trouble telling you what they think, but they don’t do such a good job telling you what they feel, just based on having that word in the question.

Best Practice: Before I write questions in this category, I ask myself:  “What do I want to know…their thinking and rational process or their emotions?”  

When the answer is the former:  I have no problem with a simple question that starts with “What are your thoughts about…….?”

However, when I want emotions I set up the category a bit more and then ask for emotions specifically.



Set Them Up: In a moment, I’ll be asking you some question’s that talk about feelings or emotions. Before I start with those questions tell me some emotions that anyone can experience in the course of a day; from rising in the morning to getting to work – working with colleagues or folks out in the world – getting back home, dealing with family members. I have ten fingers…give me some emotions that come to mind.”

Respondents often give these emotions:   anger, fear, joy, sadness, depression, excitement, love, panic, rage, lust, disgust, frustrated, etc.

Task: I then pick 2-3 of the common answers and ask:  “Where in your body, does that emotion often reside?”  I often pick anger and love and they typically say: “My stomach or my heart” as answers.

Next Step: At this point I then say:  “Great, you have the emotions down, now use what we just did to help get to the emotions that arise when I ask or show you _______________.”

Probing: Then I pose the questions related to feelings/emotions and they might sound like this:

1. What feelings/emotions do you associate with going to a car showroom and looking at different cars in which you have an interest in purchasing?

2. What is the first emotion/feeling that comes up when a salesman says: “We don’t carry that product in this hardware store.”

3. Tell me what you feel like inside when a boss says – “Your work is not up to our standards.”

Net Results: Once respondents have had a chance to see how easy it is to categorize feelings/emotions, they can then talk about those two elements quickly and allow the moderator to get below top-of-mind answers and avoid the risk to default back to “rational” answers.

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Down but Not Out in the Bayou

By Naomi Henderson

One of the benefits of being a freelance moderator is the opportunity to travel and conduct research with a wide variety of respondents. Sometimes client work took me to cities like San Diego or San Francisco and other times to places like San Luis Obispo or San Antonio. Whether it was a big city with lots of places to shop and eat or a smaller town with charm and a sense of community, I always found something positive to take away as a memory of that city. I especially loved the opportunity to go someplace warm when my city of residence had cold or rainy weather.

Although I had spent less than 100 nights in the state as a child and young adult, being born in Louisiana made me a “native.” I had visited my grandmother there for a week or so over many vacations when I wasn’t living abroad in Asia with my military family. And when someone asks: “Where are you from?” I always answer: “Alexandria, Louisiana, about 90 miles from Baton Rouge.” I love Louisiana cooking and can make a mean gumbo or jambalaya when called on. I don’t make beignets, but if offered one, I always say “Yes.”

So when a soft drink client informed me that one of the sites in a three site study would be New Orleans in February, I relished the chance for warm weather and a visit home. I plotted a stop for real beignets and hoped I could make it to the Bon Ton Café for their famous redfish entrée.

Flying in on the day of the groups put me at the New Orleans airport around noon with plenty of time to check into my hotel, get a bite to eat, and head over to the facility. I was to meet the client by 5pm in Metairie, a close suburb, for the pre briefing and to look over the stimuli to be presented.

When I landed, it was cloudy with the sun peeking out from time to time, but the air was warm even if humidity was the driver for that warmth. By the time I headed over to the facility on the interstate turnpike, the humidity felt like a wet blanket and it had started to drizzle. The drizzle soon turned into a strong rainstorm that I knew would clear in an hour or so, as those living in semi-tropical conditions come to expect as ordinary.

I had clear directions to the site and so my only job entailed looking for the right exit. Traffic slowed as the rain increased and keeping my distance from the car ahead became a challenge. We all crept along at about 25 miles per hour. My exit was about 2 more miles and then it would be a few quick turns to reach the facility.

Then, out of nowhere, the car behind me runs into the back of my rental sedan with a loud clang and bump. We edged our vehicles over to the shoulder and got out to inspect the damage. The driver of the other car was a young soldier in freshly pressed camouflage print khakis and he was crying.

I thought, “Wow…it was really just a fender bender…not much damage to either car…..I wonder why he is crying?”

He pulled himself together and said: “Ma’am, I am so sorry.  I am shipping out tonight for Afghanistan and I had just left my wife and baby. I was feeling sorry for myself and not paying attention and I hit you. I am so sorry.”

He looked scared and young and contrite all at the same time and my heart went out to him. I said: “Look, you need to get to the airport, and I need to get to a meeting. There isn’t that much damage to our cars. Let’s just forget the whole thing.” He smiled with relief and shook my hand over and over and said: “Thank you Ma’am, thank you so much.”

We got back in our cars and I rode the shoulder until my exit showed up. I got to the facility with time to spare but realized that while he had just tapped the back of my car, the impact had caused a strong whiplash in my neck. I could already feel the stiffness setting in. I thought: “Darn, I’ve got about 6 hours of time before I can get in a bed and I’ve got to lead back-to-back focus groups for a new client.”

I always carry a long silk scarf and a cashmere muffler to put around my neck when the weather is cold or the air conditioning is too high for my comfort. When I got to the faculty, I asked the hostess to put ice in a baggie and wrap it in a tea towel and give it to me. I just told her that my neck was stiff, but I didn’t give a reason.

I put the ice on the back of my neck and wrapped the silk scarf around it to hold it in place then went in to meet the client team and look at the stimuli to be shown. I told them that I had a slight stiff neck and would be using ice to reduce inflammation. They didn’t ask any questions so I didn’t have to give a reason. They were more concerned with the session starting on time than in my personal issues.

They decided to make a shift in the order the stimuli would be shown and to add two more questions in the section on promotions so I made those changes and got my room set up for the first group.

Before starting that group, I asked the hostess to change out my homemade ice pack for a new one and when I introduced myself to the group I made a joke about being Quasimodo for the evening due to a stiff neck. We all laughed and I never mentioned my neck again.

Between the two groups, I got a third homemade ice pack and switched the damp silk scarf for the cashmere muffler, made the same joke for the second group and kept on moderating.

Normally, at the end of a research day, I ask the client to stay 15 more minutes and meet me at the respondent table for a quick debrief on key take away points from the day so we all leave with a similar understanding of what we learned. A simple chart on the easel labeled AHA on the left side and CONFIRM on the right side allows the client to outflow on what they saw/heard and takes the pressure off the moderator to come up with cogent analytical points before a thoughtful review of the whole day.

However, on this night, the client chose to use that debrief time to not only check on key insights from the day but also to start talking “strategic next steps” with the client team and I became the note-taker for that process. Normally, this exercise would have been over by 10:15pm and on this night that would mean I’d be back in my rental car and into my hotel bed no later than 11pm. The client didn’t close out the debrief session until 11:15pm and only did so when the facility staff hostess said, “We are closing down and locking the doors, so you all will have to go now.”

I could not turn my head to the left or right or even shake it up and down — all that ice made the discomfort tolerable for the last 6 hours but did nothing to ease the spasms that locked my head in a rigid face forward position at 11:30pm.

I said goodnight to client at the front door of the facility and promised to meet them at 5pm on the next night in city number two of the study, secretly hoping I could find enough pain medication to deaden the pain in my neck by then. I wondered about the location of the nearest hospital in relationship to my hotel as I got in the car. As it turned out, I sighted an open drug store on the road back to the interstate, went in and talked to the pharmacist on duty who gave me an over-the-counter muscle relaxant that he said would ease the spasms and allow me to go to sleep. The dosage said two tablets every 6 hours; but he told me to take three right away and then the next dosage could be two tabs.

If there is a patron saint of pharmacists, I would like to light a candle to them. The pharmacist’s advice allowed me to sleep that night and be able to move my head the next morning. When I got on the plane, I took the next dosage and by the time I landed, most of the stiffness rested under the mask of medication. I could do my moderating job that night without an ice pack.

As with all events that have occurred in my moderating life, I looked for the lessons from this experience, and came away with these four:

1)      My physical discomfort, illness or health situation should not be shared with the client UNLESS it prevents me from moderating.

2)      Make sure I have items in my briefcase to handle my own health and well-being such as a muffler for cold rooms or planes [or for holding ice packs in place] and some power bars.

3)      Have a personal ground rule like this: If I can sit up and moderate, do so, even if I have some personal discomfort. My body issues are not the responsibility of the client.

4)      Complaining about what is going on with my body is of little interest to a client who has bought my time to reach their research objectives.

I don’t advocate being a martyr as a moderator. If I were truly sick and could not moderate, I would absolutely tell my client. If my body cannot do a decent job of moderating because of a lack of well-being, I would absolutely tell my client. But if I can do the job, even with some discomfort, then I do the job and keep my issues to myself. My clients have invested a lot of time, money, and energy in getting me to a research site to conduct studies to help with short and long term strategies. It is my job to meet that challenge.

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