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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.

This process, or double loop learning, is shown in the picture at the top of this post.

You can click and drag this diagram if you find it useful, it is developed from work by Chris Agyris, at Harvard.

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!” as they say in Meerkat language.

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. You will have your own.

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 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

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