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Difficult respondent? It shouldn’t happen. But it does. The reason it happens is due to these things:

  1. In the first minutes of the group, people are nervous – some react by keeping quiet, others by ‘blurting’. It is quite usual that one group member is more outgoing and forward than others. If the moderator does not deal with this immediately, it may be interpreted by the talkative one – and the group itself – as tacit acceptance that this person will occupy first place in the pecking order and will speak first on every occasion. These things happen in seconds at the start of a group.
  2. Another reason is that forming procedures have not been handled right. Under pressure from the brief, it is far too common to barge straight into the topic. Very often the product, service or advertising makes it into the room before the people! Here is the classic model of group process to remind you.
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  4. Due to the lack of invitation and participation, a democratic level playing field has not been created. No practical demonstration has included all views in the conversation and shown that the moderator will support and seek out anyone trapped in silence by nerves or shyness. Even if the moderator has done a two-minute introduction, talking about how important everyone is – he has not demonstrated that – and respondents will respond to what he does, not what he says.
  5. Another factor is the lack of listening – and lack of attention to listening in the group. If people think that their job is to speak, then those who are interested in power and status will be hard to stop – after all that seems to be the job spec. Not only that, people will not actively listen to others. They will simply wait for their turn to speak. This can be overcome by doing an introduction process in which everyone has to introduce someone else, after listening to them in a paired conversation for a few moments, described in more detail below.
  6. Social loafing is common in focus groups. Make no mistake, your participants know they are being paid for their time. There is a professional transaction underlying their attendance. Some people like to do as little as possible for their money! Professional respondents who attend focus groups regularly are more and more common, partly driven by our own need to recruit complex quotas in a matter of days. It is a particular problem when such an individual arrives amidst a bunch of ‘newbies’ and decides to demonstrate h/her mastery of the game. This needs to be tackled, it is a form of ‘acting out’ – see below.
  7. Production blocking is another regular feature and can be heightened by verbose types. Some quieter members will feel ‘blocked’ by the frequent interruptions from the talkative members. This will drive them further into the background and they may need the moderator’s support in coming forward.
  8. Groups that are too topic focused and full of questions will lack affect (emotional depth). This may be compounded by the notion that the topic is fairly superficial, a brand of beer, confectionery, washing powder. Such groups are hard to listen to for everyone, energy flags, responses become routine, process dominates and everyone wants to get to the end. In these circumstances a group can feel grateful for a dominant mouthpiece – at least he keeps the thing going! Later they realise they have created a ‘monster’ no-one else can disagree, or get space to speak! Make sure activities & pace are varied and that people get several invitations to participate authentically during the group.
  9. A group member might feel that they have genuine, unique, in-depth experience or knowledge of your topic. You have to make a judgment call on whether to allow this kind of ‘dominance’ – based as it is on expertise or superior capability. It will have effects on the feelings of the other members, but you can ameliorate these by asking for their input immediately after the ‘expert’ has finished. Other ways to manage this include pairing the expert with a neightbour to localise influence or arranging a go-round so that the expert shares in the middle or towards the end.

How to Set Up the Group

Introduce yourself NOT THE TOPIC, and let the group members know that you will ensure fairness, equality of opportunity and inclusion in the session. At this point people should precede products! Secure their agreement to these arrangments, they are the basic contract of your session. If you do not ask, ‘does everyone sign up to these rules about fairness and sharing?’, you will have no agreement to fall back upon.

If you are nervous about dominant respondents – or have an anxious client behind the mirror who worries about this – say something like: “I am keen to hear from all of you and will challenge you if you take up more than your share of space in a way that blocks others. I understand that people get enthusiastic and carried away and I will step in to move things on if that happens too much. I won’t allow bullying or overtalking or “cutting off other people’s heads to make yourself look taller.”

You may be afraid to create such a contract, better called ‘agreements’ in the live sessions, but if you don’t an assumed contract will emerge, based upon people’s unconscious needs/desires/fears and you will waste lots of time trying to manage, clean up and repair relationships.

Next you need a go round to give everyone an equal opening to speak – preferably on a subject that is important to them – like ‘what is the biggest thing on your mind at the moment?’ – rather than small talk about products or usage. This ensures that they arrive in the room – as themselves, not ‘users’ or ‘lapsed users’ or ‘potential users’. Give them a specific time that fits the task and your brief.

Here is an example, following on from the remarks above:

“Having our agreements in place, I do want you to feel free to share your thoughts and feelings and for us all to have the chance. Let’s practice now, by introducing ourselves to the group by talking about something that’s very much on your mind today. It doesn’t have to be about the commercial topic, I’ll brief you on that in a moment. I will go first to give you an example of the kind of thing I mean. Each person will have a minute.

Then the moderator introduces h/herself at the level that h/she wishes other people to share themselves. Model the kind of behaviour that you want in the group. You are the leader, others will follow you. Being a ‘blank slate’ will frighten people and flatten your group. Also, make no mistake about it, you have a duty of care to these people.

Once people have brought themselves to the room via their introductions you should set the Primary Task: ‘we are here this evening to….’ And give the group some information about the activities and styles of work you anticipate. Also give them reassurance about time. ‘We will end at…’ They will be worrying about it even if you are not.

If you are already aware of ‘acting out’ in the group, signalled by the adoption of expansive or submissive postures, gestures or tone of voice, consider doing an early exercise in pairs to limit and localise the influence of the actor. In my experience, its common that once a ‘star’ has recognised that his exaggerations will be largely ignored or localised, h/she will start to enjoy the democracy in the group and play an appropriate role. A easy way to do this is to ask people to take a couple of minutes each way to introduce themselves to their neighbour and then to ask each person to introduce h/her neighbour to the rest of the group. This has an additional benefit of installing ‘listening to each other’ within the group.

Persistent acting out needs to be tackled directly at some point. Comment on the acting, not on the content of the actor’s speech. If he is staring off into the air, ask: “Have we lost you? What’s on your mind that has you looking away?” If he is bunched or tensed up leaning forward, say: “you look like you’re about to burst into action, what is happening for you at this moment?” If she is invisible, speaking in very short phrases only when pushed, ask: “You seem very preoccupied, is there something on your mind just now?”

Even if not fully conscious of it, people know when they are acting to influence the group, frustrate the moderator, amuse themselves. Just call them on the act by describing it in a non-accusatory manner and nine times out of ten it will disappear!

Now you’re ready to go. It is twenty minutes or so into the session. Rock on.