The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 148-150).
Beyond discussion guide development and the effects of the moderator, there is another critical component that threatens the quality of data gathered in the focus group discussion method: the participants themselves. The participants in a group discussion face a more daunting social environment than in-depth interviewees, an environment in which participants are typically expected to meet (in-person, on the phone, or online) and engage with a group of strangers. At the minimum, participants in a dyad find themselves among two other individuals they have never met (the moderator and other participant); and, in the opposite extreme, participants in an online asynchronous group may be one of 10 or 12 or more people who have been asked to join the discussion.
As with the in-depth interview (IDI) method, focus group participants in any mode (i.e., in-person, phone, or online) may threaten the integrity and credibility of group discussion data by their unwillingness or reluctance to divulge certain information, leading them to say nothing or to make an inaccurate statement. For instance, in some focus group studies, what people do not know (or have not done) is a central part of what the study is exploring (e.g., recruiting people who have not been involved with a local nonprofit organization to learn about their awareness and perceptions of this organization). When this is the case, the moderator must use rapport-building skills not only to help participants feel comfortable with the moderator but, importantly, to also make participants feel comfortable with each other so that less aware or knowledgeable participants are not afraid to comment. Establishing rapport in the socially more complex research environment of the group discussion is essential to creating an atmosphere where participants feel free to express their doubt or lack of awareness, where they are comfortable admitting to the moderator and to the other participants, “I am not aware of any urgent care medical facilities in our city” or “I don’t recall seeing or hearing anything about that organization.” Participants’ lack of knowledge on any topic of interest is an important research finding, but it is one that is unlikely to be detected accurately without the support and rapport fostered by the moderator. By capturing the “I don’t know” response, when it is an accurate reflection of a participant’s position on an issue, the moderator has added to the credibility of the final outcomes.
What about the participant who does know the answers to the moderator’s questions but is unwilling to share that information? This may happen if the participant believes that the questions being asked or the topic area is of a highly personal or sensitive nature, or a subject matter governed by certain social norms—such as alcohol use, racial profiling, church attendance, and healthy eating—that may pressure the participant to respond in a socially desirable (or acceptable) manner. As with the IDI method, rapport building plays an important role in creating a trusting environment (whether it is in-person, on the phone, or online) in which group participants feel safe in speaking about sensitive issues or in simply saying, “I would prefer not to talk about that.”
It is because of this necessity to create an environment in which participants are willing to engage with the moderator and with each other that the ability to quickly build rapport with group participants and then maintain it throughout the discussion session is a necessary skill of all moderators.
Image captured from: https://www.bu.edu/research/articles/an-app-for-understanding-schizophrenia/