Putting the Focus in Focus Groups

It’s not uncommon for me to have to explain how my education in psychology (and specifically in counselling) serves me in the working world. This is what I get for moving on from the field only three years after graduating.

My answer to those who ask me about this invariably includes gems like “I understand how best to work with the many different personality types represented in my managers and colleagues” and “I can identify and navigate group dynamics, which makes for more effective teamwork at the office”. Sounds great in an interview, right? I’d like to provide some more concrete examples of my transferable skills on this blog, starting today with the topic of focus groups.

When inviting a handful of friendly people to come together as a group to answer questions about their consumer preferences, lifestyle choices, or value systems, you may end up with too much vague information, too little useful information, or simply no information at all. Here are four strategies to try out which can guide you towards those golden nuggets of content you actually want:

Are you following your script, but it’s leading you all over the place? You’ve probably made too many assumptions about your audience that aren’t resonating. Remember that people often know themselves better than you know them. Try following where they lead you and leave your assumptions behind.

Are you wasting your time on quantity instead of quality? You may have lost sight of the benefit of this activity: access to unique perspectives. The who, what, where, and when can be found with quantitative surveys. While you have your focus group in the room, discover the why. Try directing the conversation towards the motivation behind the actions and beliefs.

Are you missing different perspectives because one person is dominating? It can be difficult to effectively cut them off without coming across as rude. The last thing you want is to alienate anyone in the group. Try gently interrupting the speaker with a brief summary of their main point (keep it to just one detail), then immediately ask a new question while directly facing a different group member. This signals that it’s time to move on.

Are you getting one-word answers to your questions rather than insightful comments? Review your script before the session to recognize and rephrase closed questions that lead to yes/no responses. If it still feels like you’re pulling teeth, memorize a few probing questions that trigger expansive thoughts, such as:

  • What makes you say that?
  • What’s your thinking behind that?
  • Why do you think that’s the case?
  • What stands out in your mind about…?
  • What is your hunch about…?
  • What are some of your reasons for…?

I’m certainly no expert on these topics, so I invite you to share any tips or strategies you’ve found useful in the comments below.

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