Building Rapport & Engagement in the Focus Group Method

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 150-152).

The ability to quickly build rapport with focus group participants and then maintain it throughout the discussion session is a necessary skill of all Rapport building in focus groupsmoderators. Regardless of mode (in-person, telephone, or online), focus group moderators must learn how to effectively engage participants to generate accurate and complete information. Rapport building for the moderator begins even before the start of a group discussion, when they welcome the participants as they arrive at the facility (for an in-person discussion), on the teleconference line (for a telephone focus group), or in the virtual focus group room (for an online discussion), and it continues beyond the introductory remarks during which the moderator acknowledges aspects of the discussion environment that may not be readily apparent (e.g., the presence of observers, the microphone or other device being used to audio record the discussion), states a few ground rules for the session, and allows participants to ask any questions or make comments before the start of the discussion. In the in-person mode, the moderator’s rapport building goes beyond what it is said to participants to make them feel at ease to also include the physical environment. For example, business executives might feel comfortable and willing to talk sitting around a standard conference table; however, in order to build rapport and stimulate engagement among a group of teenagers, the moderator needs to select a site where teens will feel that they can relax and freely discuss the issues. This might be a standard focus group facility with a living or recreation room setup (i.e., a room with couches, comfortable chairs, and rugs on the floor for sitting) or an unconventional location such as someone’s home or the city park.

Another aspect of the physical environment in in-person discussions that impacts rapport and consequently the quality of the data gathered is the seating arrangement. For instance, Krueger and Casey (2009) recommend that the moderator position a shy participant directly across from their seat in order to “maximize eye contact.” Other moderators prefer to keep particularly talkative and potentially domineering participants in seats close to them so that they can use their proximity to better manage these participants as needed. The “ideal” seating arrangement will vary depending on the physical environment; the number, type, and homogeneity of participants; and topic of discussion (e.g., for a potentially “explosive” topic such as women’s rights, individuals who are particularly active and opinionated on the issues should not sit together where they may form a subgroup or coalition that could end up dominating and skewing the discussion).

A few of the more critical considerations in building rapport to maximize the credibility of group discussion data include the following:

  • Group participants should be contacted on behalf of the researcher(s) at least twice after they have agreed to participate in a focus group—once immediately after recruitment to confirm the date and location, and again via telephone the day before the discussion.
  • Not unlike the in-depth interview method, a necessary ingredient to building rapport with group participants is the moderator’s ability to show genuine interest in the discussion as a whole and with each participant’s contribution to the discussion. Demonstrating this interest involves frequent and relevant follow-up probing questions as well as helping participants engage with each other.
  • The moderator should be attuned to any verbal and nonverbal cues that signal participants’ level of engagement and, hence, the extent of rapport among the participants. Indeed, “one of the most difficult skills to teach in focus group training is how to ignite an interactive environment where participants engage with the moderator as well as with each other” (see “Seeking Interaction in the Focus Group Method”).
  • Rapport building is especially difficult in the asynchronous online mode because the moderator does not have direct visual or verbal contact with the participants and therefore has less control over the rapport-building process. The online moderator can, however, identify participants who are not logging into the discussion very often or are leaving only short, non-descriptive responses to the moderator’s questions. In these cases, the moderator can send each of these participants a private email to inquire why they have not been more active in the discussion and offer to assist with any difficulties the participant may be having with logging in or otherwise accessing the discussion. The moderator may also choose to call this participant on the telephone in an attempt to establish a more personal connection that may encourage the participant to become more active in the session.

Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2009). Focus groups (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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  1. I like that you mentioned getting outside of the traditional focus group facility if it makes sense to do so with a particular group of participants. Public spaces, office rentals, Airbnbs, the options are limitless. Focus group facilities are so old fashioned feeling and usually don’t convey a sense of fun, openness and creativity, which I think is important in such discussions.


    1. Hi Amy – Thank you for the comment. It actually makes me think of the days when facilities were a bit more scarce and conducting focus groups out of people’s homes was not uncommon.


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