Richard Walker, with 20+ years of moderation experience behind him, shares his advice on how to deal with both the quiet and the dominant focus group respondents.

Every focus group is different. Not only in terms of subject matter and techniques, but also in terms of the most important ingredient – the respondents.

Any moderator will be able to tell their own tales of interesting, colourful and memorable discussion group participants. Bringing together a mix of personalities, characters and opinions is often a recipe for unforgettable encounters.

Focus group moderation is are all about engineering and managing the discussion and debate (and, sometimes, conflict) in order to develop meaningful understanding and insight around the subject matter and the research objectives. Managing the dynamics between the group members is, therefore, critical to delivering balanced viewpoints. Keeping control is essential – and this means hearing from all respondents in equal measure.

In this particular blog post, I have dissected the tips and advice into two. I have 5 tips for dealing with the quiet and nervous respondent, and a further 5 tips for dealing with the noisier, potentially dominating respondent.

Encouraging the quiet respondent

Mouse the quiet respondent

1. Spot them early (check their defensive body language – they more likely to be sat furthest away from the moderator), and ensure that everyone is given the chance to speak early in the session;

2. Refer to some of the quieter respondents by their first name, and give them verbal and non-verbal encouragement;

3. Ask nice and easy questions from the start – don’t start off with complicated and difficult questions that will scare the nervous participants;

4. Break into smaller groups for tasks – less confident respondents may be more willing to speak up in smaller groups;

5. Refer back to earlier comments from the quieter respondents to prove to them that you’re listening.

Managing the dominant respondent

Diving in - the dominant respondent

6. Spot them early (anyone who seems over-confident – they are more likely to be sat nearest the moderator – directly to the left or right);

7. On occasions and where necessary, take advantage of the seating position of the dominant respondent by leaning forwards and giving a ‘cold shoulder’;

8. Deal with interruptions – a hand in the air, palm outwards, is often sufficient to stop an interruption in its tracks;

9. Tell the dominant respondent directly if they are interrupting or talking too much. Initially you can make light of it, but if they know the rules and keep flouting them then you have reason to have a stern word!

10. As a very last resort, kick them out. A dominant and domineering respondent can be damaging, and it is essential that the group isn’t compromised. Other participants will secretly thank you for it.

Of course, we would always have checks in place so that the group is spot on in terms of recruitment profile, that people are ‘warmed up’ and made to feel welcome upon arrival, and that they know the rules and expectations prior to the session starting. Feel free to try these techniques and let us know how they work out for you. And please feel free to share any tips of your own in the comments area below.

Richard Walker is a director at Mustard, and has 20 years qualitative research experience. He is still actively involved in qualitative research – designing discussion guides, developing new techniques, moderating groups, devouring transcripts and debriefing insights. He has also been a key figure in developing Mustard’s online qualitative techniques, including online communities and social media engagement tools.