Hardly any of us realise that there are as many types of listening as there are of speaking. We are familiar with the ideas of tones of voice, but not with its equivalent – tones of listening. Yet we all know whether and how someone is listening to us or not within seconds!
In Facilitation 1 we tackle this issue of listening in depth with a series of exercises which practice different ways of focusing your listening and different ways of giving accurate feedback to those you are supposed to be listening to. This movie is about Accurate Empathic Listening – a key skill – and an underdeveloped one – for insight workers and qualitative researchers.
In the May issue of the International Journal of Market Research I explore this issue in more detail, lamenting the rise of ‘scientism’ or pseudo-science and its invidious effect on our practice. Have a read of the article if you will – and post a comment!
We’ve all been there: the evening is late, the second group is halfway through and the energy is gone. Both the moderator and the group are running on Auto-pilot. A new stimulus/test concept is introduced and there is a sense of random choosing in the responses. There is definitely a feeling of inauthenticity in the replies. People are being polite – just!
The group in the video tackle this and come up with suggestions for re-energising the group. The two I like best, because they work best, are getting people to change places which literally ‘breaks’ the set territoriality of the group and asking people to speculate about what other people they have met in the group might think about the ideas.
This latter works well because people will be nervous and excited about commenting on other group members – and the others themselves will be engaged lest their reputations (in the form of their opinions) are misrepresented. This slightly ‘anxious’ edge re-energises the session.
The group in the video are a talented and enthusiastic group of young researchers from 2cv. Thanks to you all!
Please click on the thumbnail to play movie.
This is our first movie from the recent Facilitation workshop pilots. Here we can see participants receiving feedback from other group members about what works when they are in front of the room. Many of us do not clearly know what our great qualities are – especially those we take for granted – and this exercise is a way of getting in touch with the things about you that are appreciated by others.
With these qualities that show up every time you show up, you do not need to be afraid that you don’t have the right capabilities for the job!
In a series of videos on Facilitation, members of the talented group from 2cv who did a Pilot workshop with us talk about their experiences of that day! Let me take a moment to ‘frame’ their feedback for you.
If you’ve ever conducted qualitative work in front of clients or colleagues you’ll know that the feedback from observers often seeks answers to questions that you have not yet resolved in your own mind, or is faintly critical in the “you could have followed up more on…” vein. It’s very hard to walk away with a feeling that you did well, especially when you add to the voices of others the voice of your own internal critic!
One of our commitments in the Advanced Practitioner’s work is to put researchers and insight workers in touch with their good qualities – we call them ‘the things that work about you’ – so that they have access to these resources and can call on them when needed. It’s a bit like having an extra set of cards in your deck that you can call upon when you need them for a difficult play.
Most of us have, at best, a patchy picture of how we really come across to others – what signals we give off in the first few moments of contact – and thereafter. ‘The things that work about you’ is an exercise designed to help us fill in this picture – and to recognize that there are lots of good things that we bring, just out of our natural selves – without having to put on a performance, learn our topic guide by heart, or shape ourselves into a ‘blank slate’.
If you have done a lot of focus groups you will have developed your own style or way of working. What was once a frightening procedure – being expected to contact and direct a group of strangers in a productive inquiry – may have become so commonplace that you have created and adopted a style that is as easy to slip on as a well-worn jacket.
To do this, the psychological mechanisms of adaptation (getting familiar with) and trial-and-error mapping will have been your allies. Put simply, you try stuff out, expand what works and contract what doesn’t.
Expressed in a diagram it looks like this:
You can click and drag this diagram if you find it useful, it is developed from work by Chris Agyris, at Harvard. Chris is a thought leader in the area of learning organisations.
Like many mechanical analogies & process diagrams it’s very comforting; a bit like the Tube Map. In this map stuff happens, it either matches (the inner path) or mismatches (the outer path) your expectations and you adjust accordingly. “Simples!”
But of course, with our appreciation of the idea of both Foreground and Background (see Top Tips for Researchers 8: Tapping the Unconscious where I introduce these ideas) that are always present in communication we can ask: ‘is it really like that?’ Let’s explore the Background for a moment. I will offer some experiences from my own Background voices to get us started. Whether I liked it or not, these were the kind of thoughts and concerns that were always with me:
- “It’s a long journey to this venue. I haven’t left quite enough time…am I going to make it?”
- “I have spent all day working on Project X – and now suddenly find myself off to do groups in Project Y. I am out of touch with the topic – and tired.”
- “This group seem subdued. I wonder is there something the matter with them – or is it me?”
- “I don’t like that bloke’s tone of voice. He seems very aggressive. I wonder if I’m going to have trouble with him.”
- “I didn’t get a look at who is in the viewing room. It seems noisy in there. What’s going on?”
- “There’s a silent chap with arms folded in the corner. How am I gonna draw him in?”
- “They’re paying a lot more attention to the sandwiches and wine than they are to the topic.”
- “I was late and it looks like they already got acquainted. There’s a group going on already. What’s it about?”
- “…the lady there reminds me of my ex!”
To be honest I had absolutely no difficulty in generating the above flow of ‘Background voices’ from my memories of focus groups. I could have continued to write down many more. The important thing is to notice that these are all Projections – mental states that arise from a sense that: ‘there is danger here, what shall I do about it?’ Some of them are anticipatory Projections – being stimulated by guilt or anxiety that you’re not up-to-date or engaged with the project sufficiently. Others seem to arise more directly as Projections based on interpretations of who is there and what is happening in the room. Notice and describe your own versions.
They are, what’s more, perfectly natural thoughts. You are being paid to do this, you have made promises or commitments to your sponsor, you may be observed by hidden viewers who have their own Background agenda, the topic may seem slight or technical or dull, the recruiting may be faulty or unrepresentative. Any or all of these things might be deemed your fault. If some members of your audience are against doing the project they will be projecting problems and faults onto the situation anyway. You may be easier to ‘kill’ than their favourite copy-lines!
From the outside you may look calm, relaxed, confident, cool and collected but I guarantee you that these Background voices will be present. If you don’t even notice them, then they are running the show unconsciously. Make no mistake about it, this is a stressful situation – and one in which you must not show that you are stressed. You have to act grown up and as if you know what you’re doing!
Notice how you’re feeling reading this if you are a moderator. Don’t you wish all that ‘negative ***t would just go away?
So what can you do???
Golden Rule One:
“Before you can moderate anybody else – you need to moderate yourself!”
How do you do this?
Start by noticing your background voice. Notice what it is saying/feeling. What tone of voice does it speak in? What associations do you have with that tone?
Don’t try to stop your Voice. Listen to it, I guarantee that it will run out of steam after a while! It’s natural to be nervous when you face uncertainty.
If it persists tell your story of this project to yourself. How did you come into it? What are the events and feelings that lead up to today? Then, notice that your story seems to suggest certain inevitable consequences – you’ll mess up the group, nothing important will come out, you’ll get stuck in the analysis, the recruiting will be all wrong, the videos won’t work, all of the above. These thoughts are absolutely no different from the kind of concerns that anyone about to embark on a high level of performance has. But they are just catastrophic fantasies. If you weren’t nervous, you wouldn’t be alive to the project.
Own your projections – see reality. Do this in the group by noticing your assessments and judgments of the people present, your voices about any folk who might be ‘viewing’, your judgments of the flow of topics and conversation. Be alive to all of these being an integral part of your moderating experience.
Share the voices or biases that persist with a colleague or client or someone you can trust, even if you have to edit the tale a bit not to seem too paralysed or neurotic! The point is that anything you resist persists and you need to get it out into the open where it can’t undermine you from within. There will be particularly frequent and troubling Background thoughts and beliefs that pop up. They will be based more on your childhood experiences in groups (at home, at school, with mates etc.) than on what is happening here and now.
Notice what your ‘Governing Variables’ in the Background are. What do you believe about yourself in terms of the impact you have on others, or the manner that you conduct yourself in public semi-structured situations
Golden Rule Two:
“You cannot be unbiased! What you can do is know your biases. Know thyself as the Greek bloke said.”
Please don’t waste time trying to make yourself a ‘blank sheet’. If you make yourself flat, it will almost certainly have the effect of flattening your groups. If you create too much silent presence people will become inhibited by your lack of affect and acknowledgment. You are the leader of the room; people will copy you whether they admit to it or not.
Golden Rule Three:
“Create space within yourself to allow others to make an impact and to be known by you!”
You can begin to see how in the presence of your own Background voice and all the details you need to attend to in the process, finding the space to let others in might not be as straightforward as it seems. Just because you are sitting there quietly, it doesn’t mean that you are allowing others in. You might be simply in the thrall of your demons!
You need to create this space and we do this by what we call ‘Accurate Empathy’. This process is one of those taught in the Facilitation module of our Advanced Practitioner’s Course, but in essence it means conducting a go-round in the opening of the group where people are invited to introduce themselves in terms of something that is important to them at the moment. Once they have spoken, it is your job as moderator to summarise and reflect back to them as clearly and non-judgmentally as you can what you heard them say. You will find your own form of words but you might try:
“Thank you, I heard you say that…(make a summary of what you heard).”
“Thank you, if I can summarise what I heard….is that right?”
“Welcome to the group, if I can recap on what I heard you say, it’s…”
If you do this, in spite of the Background voice and all the pressure to get on with the Brief, your people will arrive and so will you. You will be a big step further in making contact and creating an atmosphere of authentic, genuine value in speaking and listening
There is simply no place for the dominant respondent in a well facilitated group. It shouldn’t happen. But it does. The reason it happens is due to many things:
- 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.
- 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!
- Due to the lack of invitation and participation, a democratic level playing field has not been created. No emphasis has been put on the importance of including all views in the conversation and 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 spiel, talking about how important everyone is – he has not demonstrated that – and respondents will respond to what he does, not what he says.
- 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 way Brownie Points are gained here. 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.
- 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! Some moderators too!
- Production blocking is another regular feature and can be heightened by verbose types. Some quieter members will feel ‘blocked’ by the interruptions and rapidity of the responses from the eager, talkative members. This will drive them further into the background and they may need the moderator’s support in coming forward.
- Groups that are too topic focused and full of questions will lack affect (emotional depth). 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 to a dominant mouthpiece – at least he keeps the thing going! Make sure activities & pace are varied and that people get to be themselves in several different ways during the group.
- 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 larger capability. It will have effects on the feelings of the other members, but you can ameliorate these by thanking them for their listening and asking for their input immediately afterwards.
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! 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 to an extent that prevents others. I understand that people get carried away and I will step in if that happens too much. I won’t allow bullying or overtalking or cutting off other people’s heads to make yourself look taller.”
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 in your life 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’.
Here is an example, following on from the remarks above:
“Having said that, 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.
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 table rasa (blank observer) 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.
Now you’re ready to go. It is twenty minutes or so into the session. Rock on.
In our second look at the unconscious mind for insight workers we think about a human being, full of vulnerabilities – as well as potentials – and ask ourselves what role would make sense for an unconscious mind in such a creature?
Above all, you would want to preserve its life, its existence. This must be a primary process for without this life there can be no person. This simple fact shapes an unconscious mind that, whatever else it might come up with, must be conservative, attracted to reliable solutions, routes and routines. Thus the unconscious favours things it has ‘seen’ before, it favours the usual route to work, the brand of biscuits you’ve already tried, the people you know and the tried and tested idea. This explains how you can do familiar things like driving home without thinking.
It was under the influence of Jung (see here: Psychology on a Page 2: Jung) that our notion of the unconscious took a turn towards the mystical, ephemeral & unknowable, while at the same time the Behaviourists (see here: Psychology on a Page 4: Behaviourism) proposed an unconscious that was animalistic, instinctive and unknowable in a different way. I believe both of these ideas are inaccurate to a considerable degree (though contain ‘grains of truth’ that we will explore further) and have created a popular idea of the unconscious an unreachable, impenetrable place – when in reality it is in view at every moment.
My own view is that the unconscious is made up of symbols, all of which are represented in language (for language is after all the structure of thinking as well as of communication). Its building blocks are words and its structure is grammatical. As we shall see over the next posts, these words are not simply sounds, but each one is attached to an image, a set of associations – and the uncomfortable examples of these are repressed or hidden from the view of others and ourselves.
The results of the experiments described in the link below are unsurprising if you’re following these posts about how the unconscious mind operates.
The next time your great idea at work elicits silence or eye rolls, it might pay to think about this reaction. This research indicates that people don’t know what a creative idea looks like and that creativity, hailed as a positive change agent, actually makes people squirm. We found this out very early on in our co-creation work and from this generated an orientation approach that would help participants overcome their unconscious rejection of novelty. You must model and adapt such a process if you don’t want the ideas you are evaluating or generating to be automatically rejected!
Many of us have formed the impression that the unconscious is deep below the surface, invisible, unknowable, out-of-reach – a bit like the huge mass beneath the water in the picture.
This is simply untrue. It is present with us, intruding, dancing in and out of sight every moment of the day (and night!)
It is visible in body language, gestures, tone of voice – as we all know from trying to figure out what others mean/intend towards us. But it is also present in language, all of the time in virtually every sentence or phrase we speak.
The relationship between the conscious and unconscious is much more like that of two voices, a foreground voice (consciousness) and a background (unconscious). This is clearly illustrated in the moebius strip you will find here: Foreground and Background in communication
So how do we get in touch with it in an active way that engages the group?
You can do this early in a session like a meeting or focus group by speaking about the idea of foreground and background voices – where the background is both the little voice ‘speaking’ in our heads and the significance that we attach to ordinary statements without realising it – while the foreground is what actually gets said.
So let’s say you ask your group members to go around telling each other their names and one fact about themselves. Let’s imagine two responses you might get:
“Hello, my name’s Ian…and I love walking!”
“Hi, I’m Marie and I’m into fashion, big time!”
These are terribly short and apparently small pieces of information. However, they are much more potentially revealing of unconscious processes than at first meets the eye. This is because before choosing the topic of walking or fashion, Ian & Marie will have momentarily rehearsed a whole set of other things they might have said: e.g. ‘I love home-cooking’, or ‘I have more colds than anyone I know’ and so on. The key point is that they chose the things they did – out of all the things they could have said – in order to present something about themselves that they wanted others to be conscious of. To do this not only have they deleted some things they might say, but they are hoping to evoke certain associations and popular meanings by their choices. However, they may hardly be conscious of what they’re doing themselves, but the group will ‘hear’ both the words and some aspect of the unconscious intention.
So, to touch or tap the unconscious, the interesting follow up remark is not: “Tell us what you like about walking/fashion.” BUT: “of all the things you might have said to this group of people, what made you choose walking/fashion?”
Allow that it might not have been a deep reason, or even if it was it may be too early to reveal it in an introduction, but what you have done by asking this is to bring into the foreground the presence of the background – and show how it shapes and determines what we say in line with our motivations and wishes. It is also possible that Ian & Marie may have chosen this information in order to avoid other, less comfortable, less normal tit-bits. So, after checking in with Ian & Marie with “of all the things etc.” ask the next two group members, “I’d be really interested to hear one of the selections that came up in your mind that you chose not to say to the group.”
Be sure to normalize and praise every piece of information yielded and to enforce safety and acceptance in the group so that no-one is shamed or sneered at, and then go on to ask the next two members: “We’ve gone this far, it’d be interesting to ask you to share one of the things you would have been more reluctant to put out into the group. Are you willing to have a go at that?”
In this way, even in the first 10 minutes of our session we are working with background unconscious material and bringing it to light in an interesting and innocuous fashion. I guarantee that your group will be fascinated by this style of working, and that you have already created permission to delve into the unconscious intentions of the group at any time along the way – providing that you update the group’s permission and deal sensitively with the material.
Have you got a couple of seconds? Have a look at the pictures above. They are all designed to capture or hook your attention.
I hope one of those grabbed you. By the way, it does not matter if they turned you on or off – what I’m trying to do is stimulate your fast archaic loop for processing that bypasses the cortex (which you must have returned to if you’re still reading!) and engages the autonomic nervous system – the one that controls heart-rate, pulse, feelings…more instinctive, automatic processes if you like.
The point here is that by engaging this by-pass we put your emotions more in control of your responses. Your feelings are now plugged directly into the stimulus – and will be influential in generating a response. That’s why sex sells. As does the power of ‘free’ (see Dan Ariely’s, Predictably Irrational). Nowadays there are more and more books that speak about the huge role of the unconscious in driving decisions, choices and behaviour. Here are links to just two of them:
In an era of shorter attention spans, where unconscious process are often in the driving seat, the hook becomes an all-important mechanism. The hook is the means by which you attract attention it is also the gateway to sustaining attention. In the images above the third ‘hook’ – the falling man picture – is designed to create an element of surprise and wonder – what will happen to the falling man? It also creates a dilemma and the mind does not like unresolved dilemmas, so is tempted to follow them through to resolution – and does this through active fantasy, “I wonder what happened to that guy?”
So in a world that is increasingly full of information, capturing attention is critical. It is inevitable that as the amount of information grows what will decline is the amount of attention given to any particular piece – so you need to know what captures people’s attention and why.
The hook is the most powerful device used in television programming and advertising to gain and sustain the viewer’s attention. In the hands of a master like Jimmy McGovern (who writes ‘gritty’, realistic British drama), there is a clear formula – which in condensed form also applies to television advertising and online content. This formula is not expressed anywhere as a theorem, but in reviewing the most successful TV dramas and commercials of the last twenty years I have noticed that the ‘hook’ must be employed within five minutes of starting the programme – within seconds if it is a commercial.
There are several types of hook and they vary between the sensory hooks that seize our attention because they are outside of normal experience, and the underlying deeper motive or part of us that the lure attempts to hook. We will deal with three stimulus variants first:
1. The shock – this is usually some quite spectacular or unexpected event, like the world falling asleep in FastForward, the battle on the beaches in the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan or a killing in a crime show. The engaging nature of the shock results from the adrenalin rush or excitement that it causes. In commercials, shocks are less serious, more bizarre or unreal, like the city-wide roller-coaster in the Barclaycard Contactless commercial or the flash mobs in airports or stations in the T-mobile campaign. The shock both hooks you and stimulates your adrenalin which in turn focuses your attention.
2. The puzzle. It is usual for the shock to give rise to the puzzle – and for the puzzle to be the means by which attention is sustained. Puzzles leave the watcher wondering – what, why, who, how – questions that demand resolution. It is the success of these elements in holding our attention – the shock leading into the puzzle, that make crime shows the world’s most popular entertainment.
Two interesting forms of puzzle that have contemporary value are
- The technological puzzle – a conundrum that can only be resolved using scientific and technological procedures of the highest order – many of us are endlessly tinkering with these as we try to improve our skills in surfing, streaming, downloading etc. This type of puzzle is the basis of the CSI television series.
- The paradox – here the essential hook lies in the contradiction between truth and falsity – an obvious delight for the participant, providing the paradox is ultimately resolved. What is the answer? Which are legitimate clues, which red-herrings?
3. The Competition. Who will win? Who will be best? How would I do facing these tests? Could I beat these people? Nowadays, the reality TV shows – like X Factor – in which people start out as beginners and are rapidly transformed into ‘stars’ draw the highest audiences of any TV show in the land. As you will notice as you read below, the competition plays straight into both regressive (Play) and progressive (Power) motives.
Now coming onto the deeper motivations, there are four main areas where things hook us:
1. Seduction – something is so attractive and desirable that you are magnetised and held in its sway. This can be a person, a product or an idea. It’s easiest when its straightforward sexual attraction, but you will notice that many other things are either associated with sex or presented in such style that they seem sensual. Lighting and camerawork can make a car look sleek, cool and sexy.
2. Power – the most progressive hooking mechanism is the suggestion that you will be in some way increased should you buy the product or service. It will enhance your image, your speed, your appearance, your prestige or status. Since so much of our society is preoccupied with status and standing, having more power – even if only by association – is no mean thing.
3. Comfort – more regressive in approach, these hooks usually rely upon memory or familiarity, prior knowledge or interest. Sentimentality is often a key ingredient. We all have our favourites, things we are drawn to automatically – because we are fans, because we have invested in earlier episodes or versions, because there is a lot of hype/media interest, because we know that all our friends are also using or watching the same things. One of the wonderful things about the comfort hook is that it involves minimum effort!
4. Play – again, appealing to the regressive, more childlike part of us are the appeals to play. Often these involve a large component of active fantasy as we can see in commercials for video games or new programmes/movies.
We all inhabit a world where people are increasingly setting out to hook or engage our attention. The consequence of this fight for our minds is that we have engineered increasingly sophisticated defences. The most direct of these is Studied Inattention. Its partner is rebuttal.
Contemporary opinion suggests that marketing and advertising has less power because of the diversification of channels and platforms. My own view is that this is often an excuse for work that has a low or inaccurate appreciation of hooks and/or motivations.
What do people do when they put aside their professional roles? What do you and your mates do on the way home from a match or a party? What level of debate do you usually reach when watching the X Factor? What sells newspapers and magazines?
The answer to all of these is one word: gossip.
We love to chat with no holds barred about the things that piss us off, excite us, amuse us and just intrigue us. Much of this chat is superficially critical – a kind of offloading of judgments, assessments, opinions. But its real role is more profound, it generates a kind of creative commons where everyone’s input is welcome and irreverence rather than compliance rules the roost.
We have, of course in our wisdom, largely banished gossip from focus groups and qualitative research. It threatens to be too irreverent, critical and judgmental and we are worried that members of the public will pour cold water on anything given the chance. Just as you and I do!
Yet in gossip, what we really notice and pay attention to is revealed. Our envy, desire, status anxiety, drivers – both to fight and flee – are all apparent in five minutes gossip and you don’t have to ‘probe’. You only ever really have to probe if people are scared or indifferent – more often the latter than the former in market research.
So, how can you use the Power of Gossip to illuminate your work?
Here’s how. Set up a Gossip Game in the group. Here’s an outline of how I might do it.
“Let’s start with a well-known figure who polarizes opinion. Someone who has both fans and foes. Let’s take Bono of U2. Who is willing to represent him as fans, who as foes? Let’s have a couple of minutes each way. We’ll let the foes go first!”
“OK, we’re talking about salad dressings. I’d like to divide the group into two, four of you to discuss salad dressings as fans for a couple of minutes. The other four to listen and be ready to express your criticism of salad dressings in response to the praise of the fans. Don’t worry fans, you’ll get a chance to get your own back on the critics once they’ve done their bit.”
Here’s another method. Print off Mastheads from newspapers like the News of the World or the Sun and invite members of the group working as pairs to write headlines or stories about the product or service as they might appear in the Sun/NOW. They can search Google for images to go with their story. We only need the headline and the first couple of sentences of the story.
The point here is that this is emotional material, there is a freedom to express emotional positions without fear of looking bad or stupid.
The fact is that these may not be committed opinions, but they are social & cultural tropes – and so say a lot about the underlying opinions and judgments we hold. In a way, these games with gossip allow a group to reverse the process whereby they are invited to comment on an endorser or presenter associated with a brand. This kind of endorsement is obviously done to sprinkle stardust on a product, but allowing people to gossip about it will show you your product’s strengths and weaknesses quicker than anything.
We often want to maximize the appeal of the brand/person/service we’re working on. Giving people rational measurements like scales or discussions drives satisficing, not maximizing measures. Gossip is, by its very nature a maximizing activity. Everything gets exaggerated, good and bad – and in the exaggerations the true attachments or problems with the brand lie.
My tip today is: don’t probe or pressurize people to provide reasons or justifications. They’ll just make stuff up to satisfy you. This is known as ‘confabulation’. Instead, take the pressure off, open things up, don’t pursue! How would you like to be ‘probed’. Sounds like the dentist!
To get a better sense of the ways in which we deceive ourselves have a look here: http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/11/10-piercing-insights-into-human-nature.php
I am amazed by the amount of poor and unhelpful process in focus groups – and process that flies in the face of our increasing scientific knowledge of how choices are made. Much of it stems from the early ideas of psychodynamic psychologists like Freud and Jung that the psyche is a bit like an iceberg, with only a little showing on the surface while much is hidden beneath. From this the idea of probing surely emerges, what if we could poke about beneath the surface to find out what’s there?
This leaves a lot of researchers busily seeking tools or techniques to dig deeper. The favourite is the question: “Why?” Unfortunately this is usually both unhelpful and leads to false attributions. We know for sure that people don’t want to appear thoughtless or irrational in front of others, so they make up a reason that satisfies the questioner.
Look at the beautiful iceberg. You could say the white bit represents conscious mind and the larger part beneath the surface the unconscious. It’s true that more and more research shows that much of our decision-making happens automatically, within the unconscious, and so it is important to think about how to reach these more hidden areas. But if you think for a second about how Freud and Jung went about it, they created settings that were as pressure free as possible and just asked people to talk about what came to mind. They did not pressure or probe people, they realised that matters of importance would surface if people were free to raise them in the manner and pace that suited them!
So, my favourite ‘probe’:
“Could you please say some more about that?”
My tip this week is this:
If you are to get the most out of an inquiry or study, become immersed in the phenomenon you are investigating. More particularly, see if you can begin to reflect upon & empathise with the significance that it has in everyday lives. Do this particularly if the product or service you are exploring has little attraction or interest for you in your life.
Everything I have ever worked on has had such significance, it’s just a matter of letting yourself be open to experiencing it. It’s best to start this process long before the fieldwork actually begins. Get yourself some experience of buying, using, chatting about, taking the mick out of, finding some friends who love/hate the thing you are about to explore.
Take this on as a ‘way of being,’ not just a mere data collection exercise. Become someone who is embroiled in the laundry and all its related activities. See if you can take the automobile you’re hired to investigate for a test drive. If it’s an insurance product, get a quote and while you’re doing so, ask what the most useful and the most irritating aspects of that experience are.
Many of the products or services that qualitative researchers are asked to explore are ordinary, everyday things. Such things, although you personally may not use them, constitute significant small acts for their users and it is the researcher’s job to get under the skin of these acts in order to appreciate their weight and significance in the lives of others. Their significance will always have some psychological value too – from products that remind them of their mum or dad to those that offer hope for their children. Things as apparently commonplace and dull as washing powder and toothpaste can command this sort of significance.
It is often in the territory of ‘small significance’ that you will find the clues that can best help your client, whether h/she was prompted by strategic or tactical reasons to do the research.
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!
My Tip this week: get your groups arguing. Read on and you’ll see why.
If you have a set of alternatives to evaluate its likely there are two main question you’ll want to answer: which is strongest and why?
There are any number of ways in which one thing may be stronger than others, but we know that liking is a key attribute of preferences that lead to purchase. In many years of market testing Unilever have established this attribute’s importance. They have also shown that ‘likelihood to purchase’ is strongly correlated with buying in the real world – so you want to ask your respondents: ‘which do you like best?’ and ‘which would prompt you to buy?’ Of course you’ll do this in the words that work best for you but my advice is to keep it simple!
Next we come to the question of ‘why?’ If yours is a qualitative project, almost certainly some degree of diagnostics will be expected of you. Here the science and the state of our knowledge suggests that our respondents are much less likely to know why they chose one thing over another than they think!
Of the ten seminal papers on this site, 1,2 6 & 7 are relevant to this issue of awareness of our own ‘reasons’.
So, what should we do? The answer to this kind of methodological question is often to be found by questioning your own daily practices. How do you and your family reach decisions about prefrences in daily life? In my family it is almost always by discussion and argument, in which one side (even if only one side of your own mind!) presents its arguments against the other and they battle it out. We try to stop short of outright fights!
In my experience modern focus groups might do a bit of discussing – if there’s time, – but almost never any argument. This is for two main reasons:
1. There is a fear of argument and dissent in groups – that this activity would make the respondents uncomfortable – and more importantly, might make the moderator and the clients uncomfortable too.
2. Rhetoric, or the skill of argument is unfashionable in this empirical age. We are not taught how to argue in a civilised manner – and thus argument often appears uncivilised!
This is where Breakthrough Psychology comes in handy. One of the key techniques of abnorming (the founding principle of Breakthrough psychology), is called the Flip. To do it you just flip what is normally done on its head and do the opposite. So, if most groups don’t argue, we must find a way to use argument – and everyday life is actually packed full of it – in our groups or interviews.
How do you do that? My experience suggests that making it into a game is the best way. To do this you divide your group up into 3 teams, two trios and a pair (for a standard 8 member group – vary numbers if you have different size groups). Each trio chooses a different route from those you are evaluating and has five minutes to come up with a ‘pitch’ to the other group members on why this route works best for them. The pitch must be no longer than a couple of minutes. Then, once the first trio has done its pitch, the second trio goes on, pitching another preferred route using their arguments.
The point of this is that in order to ‘pitch’ something, people have to grapple with the original, turn it into their own words, extract what is of value from it and also what it means to them. It is these two elements meaning and value that will give you the best diagnostics. They also have to practice condensation, another crucial ingredient of evaluation work – forcing us to summarise virtues.
The remaining pair + the moderator form an audience and create a score out of ten for each pitch. That score can be linked to some attribute if you wish, like true to the brand, strength of appeal, whatever your client is trying to understand about the value of the routes. Or they can just comment on their experience of the pitches without scoring if you prefer. I recommend getting the scores!
Whether you end up focusing on one preferred route or more in your report/analysis is up to you and shaped by your brief.
Try this out in your next focus groups or post a comment with any questions you have and I will try to answer them.
Over the next year its my intention to publish 100 tips that I have found useful in the practice of qualitative research, co-creation and depth work of all types. I think we are lacking a forum for sharing the intimate tools of our trade – including all the frustrations, disappointments and difficulties we meet along the way. I hope that others from our professional community might join in the conversation – posting if they will not only reactions to my suggestions but also good ideas of their own.
As early as 1988, I promised I would get off the road, give up the nights spent in unfamiliar homes, viewing rooms, hotels and in the company of strangers. Yet in spite of efforts to change direction, modify my practice and do it differently, I have come back to trying to understand what makes people tick (and hence what makes me the person I am!) over and over again. This is the central journey of my life, and I have spent my career pursuing it. Apart from the mysteries surrounding my own childhood, if I look back for the source of this fascination I can recall a childhood passion for detective stories and trying to figure out who was the culprit, the motive and the plot. Sherlock Holmes was a hero of my youth! There are other more intimate sources to this story and, perhaps, if I find a curious audience I will recount them in more detail.
It is, I believe, important for practitioners to know why they are in the room with others, engaged on journeys of discovery, for if the motive is only money it will get tougher and tougher to endure the double-day working (daytime + evening), the endless travel and hotels, the tension of being ‘viewed’ by clients, critics and peers and the effort to make an intervention that goes beyond reportage.
This last is a key point: if we are merely to report what people said, you can see that the days of truly interactive, face-to-face qualitative are numbered, for why should we not just collect people’s opinions gathered in a ‘room’ online? I am a big fan of online qual work – especially done in the community style – but nothing can match the face-to-face encounter for the skills of building empathy and permission to dive beneath the superficial to explore what lies beneath.
I will publish the first of the 100 tips next week.