Refine Your Focus Group Moderating Skills

group of people meeting in a conference room
••• ¬†Hinterhaus Productions

A focus group is a type of interview and it seems like it would be simple to conduct. But the truth is that focus group success is highly dependent on the skill of the discussion moderator. For someone in the position of selecting a moderator for a focus group, the following attributes are important indicators to guide the choice of a moderator. A prospective focus group moderator should exhibit the following skills and attributes:

  • Have experience facilitating group processes and be comfortable in a wide variety of group dynamics.
  • Be able to exercise a degree of unobtrusive control over the focus group participants.
  • Exhibit authentic curiosity about the discussion topic and about the focus group participants viewpoints and perceptions.
  • Demonstrate respect for the wisdom and knowledge of the focus group participants.
  • Possess adequate knowledge about the discussion topic in order to conduct effective follow-up and constructively frame the participants' comments.
  • Have mastered clear, precise written and oral communication skills.
  • Practice self-discipline and emotional detachment from participants' comments.
  • Have a friendly demeanor and exhibit a gentle and sensitive sense of humor.

Develop a Personal Style or Assume Moderator Roles

Most moderators have a preferred and practiced style of moderating focus groups. But some moderators are able to assume different moderator roles that provide a particular ambiance or style which influences the way the focus group participants share information in the group.

Moderator roles also impact how the focus group participants relate to the moderator, which can overcome many issues that the participants might have with one another or with the discussion topic. Several styles of focus group moderators are described below:

  • Very often, this moderator has considerable expertise on a topic. The objective of this moderator is to elicit the wisdom of the participants by asking just the right questions in just the right way.
  • Commissioned Consultant: This moderator conducts the focus group in the manner of a consultant who has been commissioned to produce important outcomes for a client. This moderator will be skilled at leading group discussion and will possess a strong body of knowledge about the topic that is of interest to the company.
  • Cross-Examiner: This moderator is highly skilled at challenging participants to justify or amplify their contributions. Timing and strong communication skills are required of moderators assuming this role. This is particularly true if the position one participant's viewpoint against another participant's perspective.
  • A moderator who uses this approach is enlightened, not in the true sense of the word as used in Zen, but in terms of the sense of openness and wonderment that a novice to a field may bring to what is clearly a learning situation.
    This position can be difficult to achieve success in focus groups where participants have elite status or are highly educated.
  • Framing a focus group to be an open process that does not get stuck in traditional assumptions about a topic can help focus group participants to be more transparent, less guarded, and more participatory.
  • This moderator role is assumed in when the focus group participants become polarized, for one reason or another. In this role, the moderator assures that everyone has an opportunity to express their opinion and that the voices of others are respected.
  • The Psychologist: With the influence of psychological motivation on consumer behavior one of the primary targets of market research, a moderator who is skilled at delving into these often unconscious preferences or positions can be a strong asset to the market research team.
    One of the particular strengths of moderators who function in this role is that of capturing and analyzing comments that would otherwise be accepted at face-value. Assuming this moderator role requires the ability to ask "Why?" and "How?" and "What for?" questions seamlessly.
  • A moderator may choose to record focus group participants' comments and the general conclusions at which they arrive on a flip chart. Often, the questions are written at the top of the flip chart pages and comments are recording in an ongoing fashion as the discussion proceeds.
    Advantages of this process are that it conveys a discussion structure, maps the progress of the focus group discussion, and ensures opportunity for participants to recapture and revise statements.
  • The disadvantages include the wait time imposed on the focus group participants while the writing is taking place, and the leader-facilitator role that a standing recorder conveys - a dynamic that can make the focus group discussion less collaborative, informal, and flowing.

Moderators Must "Be Present" in the Focus Group Discussion

Regardless of the role or roles that focus group moderators assume, during the actual focus group process, moderators must prepare themselves mentally just as an athlete or professor does. The goal is to achieve a state of mind that is free from worrisome thoughts and enables the moderator to be present in the discussion, listening deeply, thinking carefully, and reacting quickly to the focus group participants as they shift moods and direction during the course of the sessions.


Krueger, R. A. (1994) Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Byers, P. Y. and Wilcox, J. R. (1991, Winter). Focus Groups: A Qualitative Opportunity for Researchers. Journal of Business Communication, 28(1).