Hey Moderator: Just ask the Questions

My first focus group was in 2005 as an observer in the backroom of a facility in Charleston, South Carolina. The time was post-Hurricane Andrew, coastal building codes were the topic, and the sexy product solution was, wait for it...impact-resistant windows and doors.

The mid-career female moderator was well-versed enough in the building industry and trends to allow her to chat up architects and commercial builders as she sought to understand how they would advise their clients on code-compliant choices. As a young planner-in-training, I remember only three things from that week of groups:  

  1. That the moderator always held her own in focus groups comprised of only men.

  2. The key implication was apparent to the moderator and the seasoned brand manager I worked under. Self-interest drove product recommendations as much as if not more than, their clients’ needs.

  3. And, the final thing I remember as a result of those groups: I wanted to moderate.

So while it might not seem astounding now that the moderator held her own in the room after room with male construction types, at my more tender age early in my career, I was impressed.

But more so, stimulated by the research process and the backroom for the first time during this building code study, I found myself caught up in the conversation and abundance of learning happening between my ears. However, the moderator’s ability to follow up with questions based on her understanding of the industry and reading of the room and between the lines enabled her to navigate to the most critical takeaway decisively. Which was, Yes, the consumer-facing messaging of the new product focused on the beauty and ease of the product compared to competitors or alternatives. But a marketing strategy comprised of builder promotions would be key to disrupting builders’ construction management patterns. The numerous other product features and related benefits of impact resistance were not going to be enough to change the builder’s consumer behavior.

I missed it. Because the respondents did not explicitly state it was “all about the money” in a whirlwind of learning, without her I would have missed what was the key insight needed to guide product marketing. She was good.

Fast forward 14 years later to 2017, and I am well on my career journey as a researcher, having moderated and facilitated many types of conversations, sessions, and groups. I had found my purpose and almost all research conversations are truly a joy. There is nothing like actively listening, learning and feeling the connection with a respondent who knows you are hearing them and carrying forward their truth—on whatever topic it might be.

At the time, one of my largest clients was a healthcare organization. I’d been serving as its go-to moderator for some time, so you can imagine my total dismay when my new client, the flashy consumer packaged goods trained department director, said: Moderators just ask the question. Anyone can do it.

How could that be? This was my purpose—connecting truth to power.

But nonetheless, that was one of the prevailing lines of thought on moderation at the time. His thinking, I believe, was that moderation is just a form of data collection void of nuanced skill. Once the data was collected from qualitative research, then real thinking, strategizing, and planning could commence.

Jump forward again to 2021, I’m on a video call with a qualitative research manager with a large insurance company with whom I have not yet worked with. We are having a conversation about a custom, qual research project my team designed to target government healthcare stakeholders – so it was a hyper-narrow sampling frame and a super hard recruit. I can tell she is well-versed in research buying by her questions, which I’m enjoying fielding because it is becoming clear to her how we had been thoughtful in the design of the study and how we know the landscape. 

Her most interesting question to me was simple and seemingly straightforward, “Will there be a choice in moderators?”

I reflected on the question and replied that the nature of this research conversation lent itself to Reggi Rideout’s moderation strengths because of her subject matter knowledge and ability to support the recruitment strategy given her appreciation for the landscape. She is also extremely good at strategic and systems thinking which, from my point of view, seemed like a fit for the problem they were asking us to help solve. I still walked the research buyer through the other choices.

Elyse Washington, who was trained at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University and Burke Institute in her methods, is an engaging moderator. While Elyse also knew the subject at hand and would moderate an effective conversation, her thinking strength is analytical which is great at enabling immediate, tactical sets of concrete implications. Since I have been a part of their growth as moderators, their styles are like mine but how they think and problem-solve is distinct. Neither is better, just different.

Then I explained to the research buyer, there was me. A natural empath, seasoned but I really did not know the inner workings of state governments which I believed this scope warranted to a degree. In my mind, I would be the last choice since my learning curve in the subject would be steeper.

Upon my assessment, she proceeded to share with me that she was glad there were choices for several reasons, one being risk management within the project. Another reason cited was the benefit of assigning a moderator with little knowledge of the subject to orchestrate and elicit learning moments. Additionally, she suggested creating a dynamic between moderator and respondent could impact the respondents’ approach. The example she gave was having a male moderator ask women about beauty products so female respondents would “school” him.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve reflected on this conversation with the research buyer, my career as a moderator, and moderation in general. It probably should not have taken this long for me to articulate my perspective on the topic, but here it is.

Back in 2017, I was convinced I had found my sweet spot, healthcare conversations. I am not sure why they were so desirable to me at the time because they are difficult conversations, other than I was good at it. The vulnerability I sensed from respondents and reflected back seemed to help them trust me—human to human. That flashy CPG Research Director client who believed the opposite didn’t quite get the full scope of what was happening or how much my ability to navigate to insights had to do with my understanding of healthcare in general. Asking the questions empathetically is part of it, but not all of it. 

There is a need to have sensitivity in the room, especially when the moderator and the subjects are different as people, whether in gender, race, or other measurable or obvious distinction. However, if the moderator is well versed in not just the subject but the adjacent issues, as a good researcher, you do not need to orchestrate dynamics or be overly concerned about matching the moderator to the respondents. Although there are exceptions, for instance, specifically in conversations on the topic of race.  

Moderation is a discipline exponentially enhanced by three things.

  1. Skill at the collection of objective research.

  2. Awareness of the potential complexity of subjects, and adjacent issues. and landscape.

  3. And, critical, analytical, and/or strategic thinking capability.

Back to Reggi and Elyse and the value of having not just a multi-disciplinary team but researchers with multiple tools in their toolboxes. If moderators just ask the questions, they won’t bring you solutions. And, if it is insights you want – well then you can’t count on a moderator who knows nothing about the field to identify the insight. Because, like 26-year-old me, they will think it all is “amazing” learnings or won’t have a clue what is actually an insight and what is just a fact. And, depending on what you are collaborating with your research consultant to solve, think about how that researcher thinks and what they already understand. Like Reggi, as a system thinking problem solver. Or Elyse, seeking to dive into the details to find the root cause for the tangible solutions. Maybe both. Maybe something else.

When you watch good moderation, you can almost feel the trust, authenticity, and sense that they have matched their tone and tenor to the respondent and the room.

However, really good research moderators don’t just ask the questions in the manner in which I describe above. They have the capacity to problem-solve with their clients. 

And, yes, some of us are really good at it.

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