One of the best things about my job as a moderator is getting to create an atmosphere where a group of strangers feel comfortable enough to talk about a focused topic for a couple of hours.
It’s fascinating to be in the driver’s seat, gently nudging each person to give a point of view or express their opinion. And it’s just as interesting to watch the complexity of group dynamics in action. What a joy it is when the group interacts and expresses differing opinions in a constructive way, providing true insight. I believe this doesn't happen automatically. Rather, it comes with a bit of finesse. While there are times when it’s necessary to go to more dramatic means to ensure cooperation and avoid group think, the following steps will help you get there most of the time:
1. Set the Stage—I believe people in most focus groups generally want to give you what you want—insight from their perspective. I also believe that people need “coaching” many times on how best to do that. So, it is your responsibility as the moderator to properly set the stage. Tell respondents that you expect everyone to participate, that you expect them to have at least some differing opinions. Explicitly stating your expectations in the beginning will help you when you have to shut down the loudmouths and call on the wallflowers later in the discussion!
2. Be in Charge—you, as the moderator are responsible for the discussion thread. If you don’t manage it, someone else will. Do not be afraid to shift a respondent from an off-the-topic monologue. Time is not your friend in a group…you only have a set amount of it to extract insights. Therefore, keep yourself and your respondents focused on the objectives of the discussion. Again, be in charge of what you want to hear!
3. Use Non-Verbal Feedback First—this is especially important when gaining reactions to communication pieces or concept ideas. Get a quick read non-verbally by having participants write their opinions first. I also believe that structuring the verbal feedback process is helpful. Ask for positive comments first, then neutrals, then negatives. Structuring the feedback this way helps you stay on a path of constructive feedback rather than everyone jumping on a negative bandwagon.
4. Control the Loudmouth and Nurture the Wallflower—it is important to your clients to hear from everyone (if they all have something meaningful about the topic to say, that is☺) So, again, it is your job as the moderator to ensure that the “loudmouth” doesn’t overtake the conversation. You can do this by simply stating, “Thanks, I really want to hear from XXX.” When trying to get the “wallflower” to speak, it helps to make strong eye contact with them and when all else fails, call on them. “I haven’t heard your thoughts yet, XXX. Please tell me what you’re thinking.” Specifically stating the respondents name who is not participating will usually at least get them focused in again.