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Focus Group Moderation: It Isn’t What They Say, It’s What You Hear


By Kerry Walsh

It’s hard not to think you know everything. I find this to be true in most realms, (ask my husband), but especially in the world of market research.

Many of my clients have been working in the same category or industry for years, and have almost heard it all. They’ve sat through hundreds of focus groups, visited people’s homes, met their kids and pets, peered into their refrigerators and closets, shopped with them, slept with them (just kidding) – doggedly hunting for a fresh idea that might lead to opportunity. Mostly, they look outside themselves, hoping someone will say something that sparks.

But here’s what I’ve learned: Your own filter will completely determine what you learn or don’t learn in any given situation. It isn’t what they say, it’s what you hear. And more important, it’s what you feel that’s going to lead to a fresh perspective. Empathy is the mechanism that creates this opportunity.

After 25 years of moderating, I’m consistently surprised and enlightened by what people say and do. Recently I did some in-depth interviews with new moms about the challenges they face in transition. Through their tears, I heard anxiety about feeling ill-equipped in a perfectionist society to “do things right” in this unfamiliar role. (I could feel the pressure.) Moreover, they were losing their sense of self in the process, and were clearly little bitter about it. These women were feeling lost and alone – while the world keeps telling them how happy they should be. (I could feel their frustration and disappointment.) A major shift in marketing strategy is underway based on this much deeper understanding of identity-based needs. And it grew out of empathy.

Empathy (like immersion) is one of those research terms that is over-used, yet under-leveraged. It’s full meaning is deep and inspiring:

  • The vicarious experiencing of the thoughts, feelings or attitudes of another
  • The power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his or her feelings
  • A deep emotional understanding of someone’s problems
  • The attribution of one’s own feelings to another

Notice that empathy includes not just understanding, but caring. It’s not about observation, it’s about personal engagement. This is the basis of all successful relationships, and it requires genuine effort.

It’s a conscious endeavor to feel the feelings of someone else. Not to observe but to merge. Step out of your own shoes and become another. Realize that your perspective doesn’t matter right now. And it’s challenging. But the onus is on us to hear with open ears…and hearts. The results are likely to surprise you!

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