Building Bridges

Maximize Your Success with a Focus Group

Leading a focus group–and managing the participants–is never dull work. Recently, EnVision consultants moderated five focus groups, all part of a strategic training needs assessment for a client. The two EnVision moderators wanted to learn more about the company’s current capabilities and training needs in the areas of management, technical, and professional skills. For each group, EnVision gathered 8-12 employees.

As one session began, a focus group member (“Gloria”) started to dominate the conversation. Unfortunately, the dynamic in the focus group then changed. Other focus group members started to lose interest in the discussion. If the situation had continued down this path, the facilitators would lose valuable feedback.

How did the EnVision moderators turn things around? First, they simply thanked Gloria and did not probe her responses any further, focusing on the other group members. Yet, Gloria did not take the hint, so the moderators moved on to other tactics including using body language and, eventually, interrupting her. These approaches eventually solved the problem. What other tactics could a moderator use?

One helpful approach is to begin a focus group by establishing ground rules that encourage and allow all members to participate. One rule could be that participants will be asked to write down their thoughts if they have more to share than time allows. The moderator then would collect these thoughts at the conclusion of the focus group. When someone talks for too long, the moderator would simply redirect him to write down additional thoughts on paper.

Kathy Maloney, an EnVision consultant experienced in running focus groups, will often ask a talker, “Can you headline your thoughts for us?” This tactic prompts the talkative participant to summarize his key points.

In any attempt to redirect the loquacious participant, non-verbal cues such as eye contact are key, says Maloney. “I believe body language is very important in focus groups.” Another body language cue the moderator could use is moving toward or away from the individual.

EnVision learned something from this focus group experience. Sometimes you do need to cut a talkative person off, if his/her over-participation is limiting others from sharing their thoughts. The success of a focus group depends greatly on the moderators’ ability to balance participation. Because focus groups can be expensive to run, it is crucial that they yield a variety of opinions. “The moderator always needs to balance the contribution of one, versus the contribution of many,” explains Maloney. “What you want with a focus group is good qualitative information…you get ideas building between people that you can’t get with a paper survey.”

Tips to Redirect a Talkative Focus Group Member

  • Set ground rules at the beginning of the focus group
  • Use—or stop using—eye contact to disengage an overly talkative participant
  • Use body language to let the loquacious speaker know he has talked enough
  • Ask a focus group member to summarize her key points, as needed
  • Direct a talkative individual to write down key points
  • Interrupt the garrulous individual