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If you’re preparing to moderate an employee focus group, you have a big job ahead to ensure everyone participates and the research objectives are met.

To facilitate an engaging and fruitful session, you’ll need to:

  • Make participants feel comfortable speaking up
  • Set the tone for the discussion
  • Keep the conversation on track
  • Listen carefully to what is being said, while remembering what has been covered and what still needs to be covered
  • Give everyone a chance to talk (and prompt those who don’t)
  • Know when to explore tangents and when to move along
  • Watch the clock so you can cover all your topics in the time allotted

All that work might seem daunting, but with careful preparation and practice you can learn to moderate a focus group with ease.

Master these five key skills to become a great moderator:

1. Establish a safe environment

Make a good first impression by warmly welcoming participants

  • Smile and shake participants’ hands as they come into the room
  • Offer them food or a beverage
  • Direct them to their seats
  • Let them know they can ask you questions

2. Set expectations

Thank participants for their time and clearly explain the purpose of the focus group and the process you’ll follow

  • Explain the reason for the session, areas for discussion, length of the session, and other important logistics
  • Explain that your role is to guide the discussion and ask questions; their role is to share their opinions and ideas

3. Keep the focus group on track

Decide when to allow participants to go on tangents and when to bring the discussion back to the main subject

  • Consider how the tangent aligns (or doesn’t) with your research objective
  • Don’t ignore important issues that come up, but…
  • Don’t let tangents continue to the point where you lose control of the group

4. Encourage participation

Use clarifying follow-up questions to get more in-depth information or ensure everyone understands a response, such as:

  • “Can you give me an example of that?”
  • “Please tell me a little more about that.”
  • “How does that work?”
  • “Does anyone else have a similar perspective? Or a different view?”

5. Manage problem participants

No matter how well you master key moderating skills, or how thoroughly you’ve prepared, you can’t predict which personalities will turn up at your focus group. Don’t let unruly attendees put a damper on your session. Instead, manage challenging participants by politely and assertively directing the conversation. Here are some techniques to keep your focus group running smoothly:

Control a monopolizer

Participants who are passionate or knowledgeable about a topic can easily dominate the conversation without giving others a chance to contribute. But remember, to gather the most comprehensive findings, you need to ensure all attendees are able to share their opinions. 

If one participant begins to take over your focus group, here’s what to do: acknowledge the speaker’s expertise, then turn back to the group and ask for additional ideas:

“Thanks—you obviously have a lot of experience with this topic. Now I’d like to hear from someone else. Who else has some thoughts about this?”

Tame a talkative group

Imagine you’re moderating a focus group where participants have a lot to say. They answer every question in depth, comment on each other’s answers and tell lots of interesting stories. You suddenly check the time and realize you only have 25 minutes left, with a lot of ground yet to cover. What now?

An adept moderator will become familiar with the discussion guide ahead of time. The more comfortable you are with the content, the more you can manage the time you have left. Quickly glance at upcoming questions and note which are critical. At this point, you will have to stick only to main questions, skipping follow-up questions.

Time-tracking tip: Write time cues in the discussion guide margin to help you keep time. If the focus group starts at 1 p.m. and the introduction should take 10 minutes, put “1:10 p.m.” at the end of the intro. Do the same for each section, then check the time regularly. 

Steer off-topic comments back on course

You know the situation: a participant begins talking about one idea, which leads to another and another until he or she gets lost—far from the original idea. Suddenly your focus group is at risk of losing it’s, well, focus.

What to do? Jump in quickly:

  • Refocus the discussion and get other participants involved:

“Thanks, Joe, for those thoughts. Would anyone like to add anything on the point Joe was making about (the original topic)?”

  • Remind participants of your tight schedule (and respect for their time):

“I’d love to hear more about this, but I’ve promised to get you out of here on time, so we need to move on.”

Calm an angry mob

Fortunately this situation isn’t common, but if your internal communication research is diving into a sensitive topic, emotional outbursts are possible.

Imagine your company has been through a lot of recent change: A new CEO was hired, a new strategy was introduced and a major division was sold.

You’re moderating a focus group study to determine employees’ perceptions of these changes. But before you can ask the first question, all hell breaks loose. Employees are ANGRY! They don’t want to talk about the changes; they want to talk (and sometimes shout) about how unhappy they are with the direction of the company: 

“The CEO’s decisions were stupid!” 

“Recent systems changes just made things worse!” 

What do you do? Faced with an all-out mutiny, it would be understandable to flee the scene. Instead, keep your cool and allow employees to vent—for as short a time-period as possible. When the temperature has cooled, regain control by firmly restating the focus group’s goal:

I appreciate your candor, but now I need your help to answer the questions I came to ask. Can you help?” 

How can you become a focus group master? Practice, practice, practice.

With time and preparation, you can hone your focus group moderating skills so you’re ready to handle any situation.

The best way to build your skills is to practice, so why not try a mock focus group? Enlist the assistance of four or five colleagues (if possible, include someone who has moderating, facilitating or training experience).

Prepare for the session by becoming familiar with the discussion guide. If you are using an exercise or game, have all the necessary sheets or materials. Encourage participants to have fun and role play. For instance, assign each member a role, such as an employee from a specific department or a conversation monopolizer. During the mock focus group, ask people not to break character.

After the session has concluded, ask your colleagues for feedback:

  • How was the experience overall? Were there enough chances to participate?
  • What do you think I handled well? What situations seemed more difficult?
  • What suggestions do you have to help me improve my moderating skills?

Moderating focus groups requires keen concentration and determination. Keep practicing until you’re comfortable juggling multiple responsibilities—and managing multiple personalities.

Written By
Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, the award-winning employee communication firm that for 30 years has helped leading companies – such as Johnson & Johnson, Motorola Solutions, Nestle, Roche and Rogers Communications – increase employee engagement. Alison sets the strategic direction for the firm, consults with the client on their toughest communication challenges and leads the development of new products and services.

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