Part 4 Moderating Your Focus Group
Create a Welcoming Space
When moderating a focus group, you will want to be thoughtful about how to create a welcoming atmosphere that makes your participants as comfortable as possible. First, consider how your participants will be dressed and try to dress in a matching style. Second, if you have a list of the attendees’ names, prior to the session, memorize them as well as any additional details you have access to, such as a participant’s neighborhood, age, or job. Third, when your participants arrive, greet them warmly, shake their hands, thank them for their participation, and introduce them to attendees who have already arrived. These introductions ensure that your attendees become better acquainted with you and, more importantly, each other.
To facilitate discussion, the moderator should be seated in the middle of the circle or table where participants will sit. Notetakers or others assisting with the focus group should try to spread out evenly among the attendees. After the attendees have chosen their seats, the moderator should quickly sketch a seating chart and tuck it beneath the list of questions to refer to if names are forgotten or nametags removed. During the discussion, the moderator should use names as often as possible. This practice makes participants more comfortable and aids in the transcription of audio-recorded sessions.
As the session begins, the moderator should introduce herself/himself to the attendees, briefly explain the research purpose, and thank the attendees again for their participation. It is critical to describe what a focus group is and to underscore the usefulness of hearing as many of points of view as possible. While attendees may not all agree, being respectful of others’ views is essential.
Next, the moderator should go around the table and have each participant provide their name and a personal observation, preferably one that is relevant to the subject of the discussion. For example, we began our sessions by having attendees share a news issue important to them that is impacting their community. Moderators should also provide a detail from their lives, which gives participants time to think and makes them feel more comfortable. Notetakers or other attendees should do this as well and feel free to quickly engage with the group at points in discussion. Apparent “lurkers” in the room can make participants nervous.
Facilitating the Discussion
As the moderator begins to move through the questions, it is crucial to keep in mind that the goal of the process is to hear as many opinions as possible and gather feedback from participants. Even though the moderator and assistants may be experts on the topic themselves, they should show an interest in all comments. Provide visual cues to demonstrate your interest, shaking your head, smiling, and making eye-contact.
One of the major challenges in moderating a focus group can be deftly guiding participant discussion in a way that simultaneously allows all participants to feel included and appreciated, and obtains the needed research information. In focus groups, one participant or a few participants are often very confident speaking in front of others and outspoken in their views. Other participants, however, are more reticent and do not readily voice their opinions. While you will not want a few participants to dominate, keep in mind that all attendees will be looking closely at how you interact with them. Remain attentive and respectful of everyone’s opinion at all times and do not cut off speakers. One useful trick is providing attendees with positive reinforcement and then pivoting to an inclusive comment — for example, “Susan, thank you so much for sharing that. It’s very helpful for us; it reminded me of Marion’s comment earlier regarding news blogs.” Or “Susan, thank you for sharing that. Marion, do you have something to add?” If a participant interrupts another speaker, you can quickly let them finish their point but then provide a subtle reminder of the need to hear from all voices — for example, “Susan, thank you for that. Marion, I think you were making a point, and we want to hear from you. Please continue.”
If participants move off topic to a very personal or sensitive issue unrelated to a particular focus group question, do not quickly cut off the discussion, which can seem insensitive. Instead, listen for a few minutes, then steer the conversation back on track. Even though the content of the focus group may seem uncontroversial, participants can clash over a political or policy issue, and the conversation can unexpectedly turn heated. For example, in a recent focus group on local news access, one participant who made a disparaging remark about Fox News was interrupted by another participant who saw this as “bias.” The first participant angrily stood half-up, remarking that she would leave if she was going to be “so personally attacked.” In such cases, the moderator should intervene immediately and try to deescalate the situation by using a calm tone and reminding all participants of the challenge of focus group participation and the importance of respecting all voices. Do not appear to take sides or have an opinion on a controversial issue. If one or more participants leave the discussion, do not make an issue of it. Instead, thank them for their time and remind the remaining participants of how appreciative you are for their participation and insights.
When the focus group concludes, thank your participants again and, if possible, discuss how the information you gathered will be used. If they can have access to your report or be involved in some way in a future product, let them know. Shake all hands as they depart and be sure to use names. If you are conducting multiple focus groups on the same topic, take time after the first session to reevaluate the questions and consider how the discussion went. You may realize that some questions should be reworded, reordered, omitted, or added.