Engaging Focus Group Participants in High Value Discussions (Part 2)
In last week’s blog post (Part 1), I presented four strategies you can use in the planning process for focus groups to increase the likelihood that participants will engage in a high value discussion. This blog post (Part 2) details four strategies that can be used while conducting the focus group to maximize the quality of the discussion and the data it generates. They include using detailed introductory remarks, giving positive feedback, providing opportunity for reflection, and listening with fascination. I explain each here.
- Focus group introduction. Introducing participants to the focus group process gives them the background information and structure they need to effectively engage in the discussion and reduces the distraction of not knowing what may happen in the group. A generic template I’ve created for focus group introductions includes three main components: 1) the purpose for the group, 2) the intended use of the findings, and 3) a set of ground rules. Because I generally conduct structured groups, the ground rules are fairly detailed. In addition, I ask about participants’ experience participating in focus groups because those who have never done so sometimes confuse a focus group with a brainstorming session, a problem-solving exercise, or even group therapy!
Regarding ground rules, I start by letting participants know that I want to hear a wide range of comments and opinions. I encourage them to disagree with each other even if they feel they might be the only one that holds a certain opinion. To stem the fear of openly speaking their minds, I ask participants to keep what is said in the room and not share it with colleagues or others who may know their fellow participants. I also let participants know upfront that I might call on someone if I have not heard from them in a while but not to interpret it as “picking on” them. Instead, I believe everyone has something valuable to say or they wouldn’t be there—some of us just need a little more encouragement.
- Support and positive feedback. I provide reinforcement and recognition periodically throughout the focus group discussion to encourage optimum sharing and comparing. I say things like, “This is such a rich discussion; you’re all making such good points,” or “You guys really know this topic; I’m learning so much,” or “Your comments are right on target, just what we want to hear.” For more tentative groups it seems to build confidence and encourage a more animated and authentic discussion. Michael Patton suggests that positive support can also be used to encourage an individual to take a response to a deeper level. Depending on the situation, he says it might be appropriate to say something like: “I don’t want to let that question go by without asking you to think about it just a bit more because I feel you’ve really given some important detail and insights on the other questions and I’d like to get more of your reflections about this question.”
- Opportunity for reflection. To help participants think more deeply about what they’ve heard in the focus group, I generally ask a reflective question near the end of the discussion. This question forces participants to integrate what they’ve heard in the discussion and to think about the topic at a deeper and more useful level. As an example, in a recent focus group study I conducted with staff from the Friends of the Children (FOTC) organization in Portland Oregon, I asked this as one of the final questions: “Pretend that the chairperson of the FOTC Board heard that you had some good ideas for decreasing inefficiency and spending more quality time with children. S/he invited you to the next Board meeting to present your three best ideas—even if they cost money. What would you tell the Board? I’m going to give a few minutes to think about it. Here’s some paper if it would help to jot down a few notes.” The previous focus group questions focused on inefficiencies in the organization. Using this reflective time, participants were able to synthesize what they had heard in the past hour and generate a substantial list of useful and insightful recommendations. This exercise works especially well for introverts who often don’t think of that brilliant comment or two until after they leave the group and have some quiet time to process their thoughts.
- Listening. Listening research tells us that we all respond positively when we feel someone is listening to us with interest and curiosity. When listened to, we’re more likely to speak up, speak clearly, and add detail to what we say—all behaviors we want to encourage in focus group participants. The best way to engage focus group participants in a high-value discussion is by listening to them in what’s referred to as a receptive mode. During receptive listening the goal is to understand the speaker in the very way they would like to be understood. To do so we must set aside preconceived notions, engage our curiosity, and keep our focus on the present moment. We can’t be thinking about the next question, how much we disagree with what the participant is saying, or even how we’re doing as a listener. Instead, we must become literally fascinated with what we are hearing. Doing so makes it more likely that the meaning we assign to the speaker’s words comes as close as possible to the meaning they intended.
Ultimately, there’s no such thing as a perfect focus group–we always want to know more or wish we had asked that one additional follow-up question. But implementing the strategies I’ve outlined should lead to fewer regrets and a richer data set. You may even get that “truly engaged” feeling from your focus group participants more frequently!
Let me know if I can help in any way. I offer Qualitative Methods Coaching (QMC) at the following rates (nonprofit, student and repeat client discounts available):
- 1 – 3 hours: $150/hr.
- 4 – 19 hours: $125/hr.
- 20+ hours: $100/hr.
To see if QMC is right for you, email me at susan@qualitative-researcher .com with a short description of your project needs and a convenient time for your free 15-minute consultation.
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