Elevate Your Conversations

Three Best Practices from a Qualitative Moderator

Morgan Williams
Director, Qualitative Insights & Strategy Operations

Qualitative moderators are trained to build trust with participants quickly and to structure discussions in ways that allow them to explore topics of interest in-depth in a limited amount of time. Moderators are “instruments of research” (Michael Quinn Patton), relying heavily on their training to navigate various methodologies. In addition, moderators strive to get beneath the surface – to unearth underlying attitudes and emotions, tap into non-conscious associations, and connect the dots in ways that research participants themselves may not recognize. They listen for individuals’ unique experiences and opinions to ask well-timed follow-up questions to gain a greater understanding of similarities and differences, patterns, and personal beliefs on the subject matter. In essence, “moderators deal with the fabric of emotion and the texture of language.” (RIVA Institute)

While you likely don’t need training or toolkits to carry on everyday conversations, there are a few practices that can be translated across situations and audiences–and sometimes just a good reminder to yourself to check your biases and expectations at the door. At the heart of moderation are three best practices to forge authentic connections that generate insights:

Emotional handshakes

  • People want to connect with others, and they want to feel good about themselves–it’s our nature–and that’s probably not news to you! As moderators, it’s useful to put a label to this idea of taking time to genuinely wonder about and validate the folks that have shown up. It’s an “emotional handshake” because you’re taking time, separate from your objectives, to just wonder about them – like what brings them joy or how they’d choose to spend a free moment. It’s valuable to provide this space for connection even when time is tight to hear what makes participants unique and what unites them. It’s a simple idea that has a profound impact. People tend to be more open and empowered to offer their perspective when they feel like their voice has been heard, and matters. Setting aside the time for these interactions early in a conversation are the building blocks for success.
  • Taking a few extra minutes at the start of your conversation helps build connection and trust and get a bit beneath the surface–this can feel natural or foreign, depending on your conversation style. The simplest way to think of an emotional handshake is to listen carefully to someone’s introduction of themselves, then ask a question that demonstrates you heard what they really said. If they mention – or you notice – something (dog, kid, day-off, background noise), use it as an opportunity to ask more. A seasoned moderator can leverage these personal anecdotes throughout the discussion – further demonstrating their listening and attentiveness. The emotional handshake is a small yet mighty way to humanize your participants and build authentic connections.

Sophisticated Naiveté

  • Moderators are experts in sophisticated naiveté–or, in other words, “playing dumb.” After all, you tend to get the most information when it comes from a place of pure curiosity. Signaling a need for more information from someone (e.g., “what do you mean”, questioning facial expression) can get people talking more without much effort. On the flip side, it’s important to avoid appearing phony or faking ignorance; instead, you should strive to express interest in their explanation and ideas, regardless of your own level of expertise on the topic. Keep in mind there is no such thing as “dumb questions,” so don’t assume you know what your audience means; ask more questions and get granular with probes to understand their reality (which may look very different than yours!). In some instances where the topic is common, it can be helpful to phrase your question as if you’ve never heard of it.
    • For example: Pretend I’m an alien from Mars and I have no idea what ordering coffee means. Walk me through it from beginning to end.
  • SQLA formula–Short Questions makes for Long Answers: The shorter and more direct your questions are, the more there is to gain from those you’re talking to. Don’t feel the need to fill up the silence with more words. Silence can be powerful in uncovering deeper insights – try to let others do more of the talking.
  • Ask open-ended questions–Give space for your audience to express their own opinions, independent of what you might feel is the case. Be more deliberate about incorporating open-ended question formats (who, what, when, where, why, how) to avoid dead ends like yes/no answers; this will always lead to more detail, more information, and more conversation.

Projective Techniques

  • Ever had a situation when chatting with someone who’s having trouble verbalizing what they’d like to share? Projective techniques are designed to release subconscious thoughts. It is a method moderators use to help participants find the words or associations that may not be obvious to them. Here are some examples:
    • PERSONIFICATION: understand attributes and associations by asking someone to apply human traits to a thing.
      • For example: How would Coca-Cola’s personality be different from Pepsi’s personality?
    • ROLE IMPORTANCE: explore the importance something plays in their life. In asking for a eulogy or love letter, you may be able to uncover emotional connections; or a deserted island exercise may tell you what’s most important when forced to pick between options.
      • For example: Write a eulogy to cursive writing, pen a love letter to your favorite clothing brand, or tell me what one music album you’d want on a deserted island.
    • SENTENCE COMPLETION: focus on the response, not the situation, by directing someone to project their needs onto another person/channel.
      • For example: I wish my favorite airline would allow me to…

Uncovering qualitative insights can come from a variety of sources, allowing you to uncover new ideas and perspectives from places you never considered. Including the voice of the consumer in strategy and decision-making is key to delivering insightful, actionable results. CMB’s Qualitative Practice Group can help drive decision-making tactics to create new business strategies and drive ROI.

Want to learn more? Let’s start the conversation today! Email us at qualteam@cmbinfo.com.
Morgan Williams
Director, Qualitative Insights & Strategy Operations