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4 Tips for Qualitative Moderators

As a market research professional and qualitative research expert, I’ve moderated over 200 focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnographies for a wide variety of clients. I’ve talked to all kinds of people, from transgender sex workers to C-Suite executives. Becoming a good moderator is critical to generating the types of qualitative insights your clients need to be successful in today’s market. While practice is the best way to improve your craft, these 5 tips will help set you on your way to becoming your client’s go-to moderator:

1. Establish a rapport

The first 10 minutes of a group of interview are critical to establishing trust. You want your respondents to feel like they can be open and honest with you, which is why establishing a rapport up front is so important. The standard introductions we usually do at the start of a focus group or interview are not just formalities–this time is an opportunity to establish rapport and show your subjects that they can trust you.

After going through the ground rules/background of the group or interview, let your respondents introduce themselves and be sure to include a “fun” question like ‘What are your favorite hobbies?” or ‘What are you looking forward to this Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer’?

Once your respondents introduce themselves, make a comment about something they said or ask a question to show you are interested and engaged. For example, if a respondent says one of their hobbies is cooking, ask them what their favorite dish to cook is. In your own introduction share something personal about yourself, whether it’s the vacation you’re about to take with your family or what you’re cooking for dinner that night.

2. Don’t judge

In regular conversation, it’s so natural to use “judgment” language when someone says something to us, whether it’s “I agree,” or “Great,” or some other phrase that places a value judgment on what the other person said. But this type of language can inadvertently lead respondents and make them think about what the “right” answer is to your question.

Moderators should actively avoid judging what the respondents say and reply either with a head nod, or a neutral phrase like “OK” or “Got it.” The respondent should have absolutely no idea whether you the moderator agrees or disagrees with what they just said. You want to acknowledge that your respondent just said something, but you must stay neutral in your response.

3. Work the room

One of the most common rookie mistakes new moderators make is allowing a few people to dominate the conversation in a focus group. Everyone in the room should have equal air time, but it’s up to the moderator to ensure that happens.

When stating the ground rules up front, you might want to acknowledge that some people are “talkers” and that others are quiet, so for that reason you might call on some of the quieter folks and sometimes have to interrupt the talkers so you can hear from someone else in the group. Stating these rules up front and letting the group know what to expect is key to a smooth, productive discussion.

4. Check with the backroom

Leave the room 1-2 times to check in with your clients in the backroom and see if there are any additional questions or follow-ups they want asked. A good time to do this is when your respondents are preoccupied with an activity or handout. I try to pop in to the backroom once in the middle of the group and once at the end. You could run a perfectly good focus group but fail in the eyes of your client if you didn’t ask their one key question. Taking the 1-2 minutes to check in with your client is a good strategy to making sure your project is a success.

Now it’s time to start moderating! Check out some of the qualitative research I’ve done here and let me know how your research goes!

Travel Notes: The Pain of Beauty

In many societies around the world, being beautiful involves engaging in practices that cause physical pain and in some cases severe health consequences. That is, the endurance of pain is intimately connected with cultural standards of beauty.

In some Ethiopian communities, women are whipped with sticks until their backs bleed in a testament to their commitment to the men of their village; the scars they develop from getting their backs slashed open are considered beautiful and desirable.

In Myanmar and Thailand, female members of the Padaung tribe (so-called “giraffe women”) wear brass rings around their necks to make them appear longer. The rings are so tight that over time the clavicle becomes deformed which is what causes the appearance of a lengthened neck. At one point the tribal members claimed that the rings offered women protection from tiger attacks, but now that tigers are no longer a threat the practice still continues in the name of cultural beauty.

I can’t help but also notice the silencing symbolism in placing the coils around the throat, thereby restricting vocal cords.

The governments in these countries have attempted to outlaw and curtail these cultural practices, but with limited success. Tribal members have resisted these efforts, claiming that perpetuating these practices is a way to preserve their culture.

In defense of these practices, tribal members will invoke the concept of freedom: if women want to participate in these beauty rituals (and ostensibly, they do), then why is the government interfering with our right to carry out our own traditions? Importantly, women’s consent is critical to the perpetuation of such practices. Ethiopian women participating in the whipping ceremonies literally beg the men to whip them more, as the deeper the scars the more beautiful they become. Similarly, women in Myanmar and Thailand are proud of their coils and enjoy wearing them.

Of course, the extent to which this “consent” is the result of a free and informed decision is highly suspect. When a culture defines beauty—and therefore, womanhood– by the endurance of painful rituals like whipping and the neck coils, women must comply to be accepted in their societies. The consequences of abstaining, of deviating from deeply ingrained cultural norms, are often far too high.

In Myanmar at least, I’ve heard reports of younger generations of girls refusing to wear the neck coils, which may indicate progress on the horizon. But we cannot place the burden of stopping these harmful behaviors on women alone—men also need to push back against the idea that a woman must suffer pain in order to be considered beautiful.

See more of what I’m learning on my 6-month trip around the world on my blog, Women of the World.