Focus Group Dynamics & Quality Outcomes

Focus group dynamics

As discussed elsewhere in this blog, the ability of the moderator to multitask has important implications to the quality of focus group discussion data. For example, to gather quality data, the moderator must maintain concentration on the research objectives while also following up on new and/or contrary ideas as they emerge from discussion participants. The quality of research outcomes also demands that, in a multi-group study, the moderator consistently cover all the key topic areas of the discussion guide across all groups while also contending with the unpredictability of group dynamics as defined by each group of participants.

Group dynamics can lead a discussion in any number of unexpected directions. Here are just a couple:

  • Group Think
    • For whatever reason, participants appear to be in agreement on one or more topics. The moderator can
      • Look for inconsistencies by assessing whether one or more participants are contradicting earlier comments and, if so, ask about it.
      • Paraphrase what is being said and ask participants to clarify their basis for agreement.
      • Play devil’s advocate
        • “I have heard the opposite from other users of this product. Help me understand how this group thinks differently.”
  • Stray From the Guide
    • Participants may bring up topic areas that are relevant but earlier than intended per the discussion guide. The moderator can
      • Ask participants’ permission to discuss the topic at a later time.
      • Choose to discuss the topic at that moment in time (if not too disruptive to the flow of discussion).
    • Participants may bring up topic areas that are not relevant to the research. The moderator might say
      • “Thank you for bringing this up. This may be something for us to consider for future discussions.”

An important component of these and other forms of group dynamics is participants’ behavior. For instance, one or more participants in a focus group may

  • Dominate the discussion preventing others from contributing. The moderator can
    • Make it clear in the introduction that it is important to hear from everyone.
    • Let the participant speak before interjecting, “Thank you for that comment. Let’s hear from someone else. Sally, what do you think about the current climate crisis?” or “Thank you. Any reactions to David’s comment?” 
  • Be argumentative or hostile, has “an axe to grind.” The moderator can
    • Be sure participants understand the purpose of the research & how the discussion will be conducted.
    • Let the participant vent. Listen politely and then, “Susan, I hear you. Thank you for your comments. But we need to move on with today’s discussion. Can you and I talk afterwards about your concerns?”
    • Take the opportunity to use the participant’s comments to start a new discussion – “Jack, you make a good point…”
  • Be shy, quiet and doesn’t make eye contact. The moderator can
    • Make a special effort during introductions to engage the participant via active listening techniques.
    • “Back off” from the shy participant until sufficient rapport has been established and then attempt to engage the participant – “John, what do you think about the idea of adding solar panels to your home?”
    • Be considerate and, if the participant does not want to contribute to the discussion, do not risk angering or upsetting the participant.
  • Enter into side conversations or be distracted. The moderator can
    • Call for a “time out” whereby the discussion is briefly stopped and the conversation/distraction is resolved.

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