Where shall I start? This is one of the most common misunderstandings of qualitative procedures. It tells both of the quantitative (how much, how many?) orientation of many buyers and practitioners – and more fundamentally in group work – it demonstrates the failure to take the group seriously! It is part of what David Rennie, a brilliant academic commentator on qualitative process calls, “Dragging the chains of positivism along the corridor of qualitative inquiry.” Well put David!
I’m going to tackle the quant. thing first. No matter how many people said or didn’t say something in a qualitative study it has no statistical validity if you try to generalise it to National or Regional or Demographic levels. It may have face validity and be a jolly useful insight that happens to scale up, but it is no test for the frequency or universality of the idea across large populations at this early stage. However, although every sensible client and researcher knows this, it still emerges as the question people have to ask, because they don’t know a language for better questions. It is a failure of the qualitative industry generally to inform and teach our associates better questions to ask of us.
There are hundreds of things we say just because – well – it’s our turn, we’re due to speak, we’re feeling left out. These remarks are likely to be based on winning formulae we’ve used before – which have got us us noticed, past a sticky moment, allayed our inner critic etc. In other words, we say them because we always say them when we’re feeling the need to say something in a situation where we’re trying to do well and must compete for attention with others! Groups are full of such utterances and they exist to promote norms and comfort among participants – not to describe deep-felt feelings or motivations about your brand or product. Because of this, stuff that lots of people say or agree to is likely to be among the least significant of all the things they say. In my experience the really telling remarks are those that stand out from the others!
Insight nearly always emerges from things you haven’t heard before, or things said in a way you’ve never thought of before. It does not reside in polite, safe, normative remarks unless these serve a deeper purpose for the brand or service.
Sadly, the ‘how many of them?’ criterion leads us to focus on the remarks driven by the need to norm as the most significant when they are neither significant or really about the product or service at all!
There is, however, a much more serious problem underlying this: what I call ‘the failure to take the group seriously’. Nearly all of us, practitioners, clients, psychologists alike really harbour the notion that the group is actually a collection of individuals whose statements can be aggregated or counted to generate an analysis. But what if the group can be considered as an entity with character and personality in its own right. And that the people in it, for the time of the group, are parts of a whole? In other words that the voices in the group are sub-personalities of the group personality and that this is in truth the aspect of the group worth attending to. How did it feel to be with this composite person? What parts of this person did you meet (sub-personalities)? What feelings came up in you, the facilitator whilst with this ‘person’? Could these have been feelings travelling around the group? If you had to offer a sensible explanation of this feeling, how would you explain it?
As well as feelings, there is usually a tone of voice that the group ‘finds’ after a while. If you have too intensive a topic guide, this tone of voice is likely to be dependent – waiting for the next question. Such tones are flat, polite, take-it-in-turns in form and resemble people giving answers on a questionnaire in form. As moderator you can encourage spontaneity in tone and content by setting challenges for the group which it cannot solve by normative processes. We teach these challenges in our Breakthrough Psychology Course.
I think this is such an overlooked area in our practice of qualitative research that I will return to it soon.
Can you keep the warm-up down to 5 minutes?
How many times did I hear that request? It is one of the most common misunderstandings of group process to assume that you can cut the warm-up to the briefest of introductions and then proceed with your topic guide as if your participants are really there!
If you were sitting in a group of strangers in an unfamiliar setting about to embark upon an encounter that you hadn’t seen the agenda for, how much of yourself would you have readily available to put on show?
I would be pretty scared, at the very least nervous, and cautious about coming forward. If I were a participant, quickly I would appraise the moderator – the person in charge – and then my fellow members, looking for a friendly or attractive face, decide a strategy (“I’ll take my turn but not go first/make a joke whenever I can/talk about my kids/try to figure out what they really want/look at my knees/feet/coffee/play with my mobile/fiddle with my collar.”)
A whole bunch of displacement activities and mild evasions. Keeping most of themselves hidden. Avoiding awkward silences but not breaking any boundaries or norms.
Into this shy, nervous, occasionally impulsive gathering you must start to ask the questions you have agreed with your client – who may be watching you, while talking to friends and colleagues (about you?) behind the glass – with a glass of wine in hand.
Because it is so unregulated, so lacking in encouragement and invitation to come forward in that first few minutes, it is quite usual that one group member is more outgoing and forward than the others and gets the approval of the moderator for livening things up in these early moments. 30 minutes later this forward person has become a ‘dominant respondent’ and won’t shut up. Dominant respondents are only 10% driven by dispositional factors: the other 90% is the result of poor group process.
If you do the first twenty minutes differently you will never be bothered by dominant respondents again – or even if the odd unquenchable tongue-wagger shows up – you’ll know exactly what to do. See the Top Tip 10 Next Week.
Transactional Analysis (TA):
Throughout my early career I became something of a specialist in advertising development research: the kind of project where you take a set of scripts or storyboards out into groups to see if they grab people or not.
One of the essential components of this kind of work is to have a language for talking about the tone of voice or style of behavior depicted in the prospective commercial and whether it works to engage and motivate or not. Transactional Analysis intrigued me because it had tackled just that problem – the issue of finding an easy to understand language to communicate with patients about the workings of their psyches – and doing so in a way that these ‘inner voices’ were simply described.
The founder of TA, Eric Berne, called these voices the Ego States. This language, with its famous Parent, Adult, Child model was particularly appropriate for advertising because so often commercials attempt to skirt the rational defences of the mind and engage our childlike delights or pleasures.
The basic TA model is here: the idea is that there are three core components to consciousness, three voices if you like – a Parent, an Adult and a Child.
Each one has a particular tone and affect, summarized here:
The fun thing is that you can experience each of these voices for yourself from moment to moment. Your parent voice can be either controlling or nurturing, your adult presents facts and observations while your child hums that jingle or pop tune you can’t get out of your head! The beauty of the model is that it can be checked out experientially by any of us at any time. We can feel its reality: our inner voices do speak to us in different styles. In advertising research we often used references to these voices to analyse the impact – or lack of it – of advertising.
There is a brilliant example of a TA enhanced commercial here: the R White’s Secret Lemonade Drinker:
Here an adult who creeps downstairs in an exaggerated pantomime ‘tippy-toes’ walk to help himself to some Lemonade from the fridge. He is totally gripped by his Child ego state. His expression is of delight. Just as he drinks his lemonade, his wife appears behind him, completely in her Adult, and we wonder for a few seconds whether she will scold him (Critical Parent) or empathise (Nurturing Parent).
Because the advertiser wants to encourage our empathy and participation, a smile dawns on her face and she accepts her man’s bizarre behavior. All of this takes place over a jingle, a mock rock track sung in a very Free Child voice.
The key to discovery is letting go. Once you have formed your group or team, you need to set them free on their journey with whatever brief(s) and resources you plan to make available. This need to let go is one reason why I have focused so much on disinhibition in my group work – hoping to let go of my own inhibitions as well as everyone else’s!
Last time I talked about tips for evaluation. This time we’re talking about discovery projects where you are setting out to uncover things that haven’t been found before. Such projects might have innovation as their goal, or to update and catch up with changes in attitude or behavior due to time or new arrivals in the market place.
If you are briefed to discover & innovate, then the diagram below gives you a strong sense of the ideal shape of your research sessions. As you can see the major part of the session is devoted to opening up or divergent thinking which is very different in shape and nature from the kind of control-oriented work you might do in an evaluation group.
Here the forming part of the group or session is crucial, you are going into unknown territory with strangers so you need to be able to count on each other. Although this ‘unknown territory’ exists in an urban or suburban comfortable room or viewing facility, or perhaps a hotel meeting room – don’t think this doesn’t mean people won’t be anxious – they will. And so will you! Whatever you do don’t adopt a ‘nonchalant’ or devil-may-care attitude as if you were a complete expert, which almost certainly covers nervousness – and is likely to create mimicry in the group as they copy you, the most powerful person in the room!
Here is the shape of the Discovery Journey with key markers along the way:
If you have difficulties interpreting this on-screen you can download a pdf of the discovery diagram here:
We will return to the Phases or stages in this journey in future Tips, but notice if you will similar journeys of your own, where you have opened yourself up for new experiences. Going on holiday is a favourite [although if you’re a worrier like me, you may have packed everything but the kitchen sink!] Think of a time when you took things as they came, tried out some new stuff and went with the flow: that’s the kind of headspace to employ if you’re leading a creative journey.
More on what all the phases involve soon!
This is the second video in my series. Click on the Thumbnail above to see the film.
This one lays out some of the important ‘socially constructed’ boundaries that face any facilitator. These boundaries determine what is permissible and what is not in each level of encounter with other(s). Inevitably the position and strength of these boundaries varies with different people. Some are much more personal, others more professional. Some have a well-developed public persona (entertainers or entertaining people for example), while others do not.
To make contact with people – and to explore things at some depth – you need to be able to cross these boundaries readily and without creating offence.
The unacknowledged existence of these levels is, I believe, one foundation of the idea of ‘talking at cross purposes’ where you want to explore something in more (or less!) depth and your group or interviewee seems to be missing the point. It’s helpful to practice these transitions if you want to reduce the amount of time you’re out of synch with each other – in your personal & private relationships too!