Jan 2014

09 January 2014

Acting . . . and focus group moderating (Have a ‘warm heart and a cool mind’)

Posted: January 9, 2014

I recently came across an old book on the craft of acting*, not because I’m thinking of auditioning in the near future (needless perhaps to say), but because I had been wondering about possible clues for the craft of focus group moderating.  The book talks about both physical and psychological keys to effective acting:

Psychological qualities in acting:

(1) Understanding:  Intelligence makes the actor perceive things properly and regulates the sensibilities.
(2) Sensibilities:  Emotional awareness allows the actor to perform with feeling, and animates, enlivens, inspires the understanding.  
(3) Spirit:  Having a kind of fire and lively imagination (but not blustering) produces the living character in the actor.

Physical expression in acting: 

  • Use of one’s body
  • Use of one’s voice
  • How one looks

It seems to me that effective focus group moderating requires the very same psychological qualities and physical expressions that are so important in acting.

Psychological qualities in moderating:

(1) Understanding:  Intelligence makes the moderator perceive things properly and regulates the sensibilities.

  • A firm grasp of the study objectives is necessary to come away from the groups with the business questions answered.
  • Being quick on one’s intellectual feet is required to probe when probing is needed and let go and move on when it’s not.
  • Deep experience in the art, as well as the topic at hand, enhances the understanding:  the more you see, the more you know; the more you know, the more you see.

(2) Sensibilities:  Emotional awareness allows the moderator to perform with feeling, and animates, enlivens, inspires the understanding.

  • Developing a rapport with all respondents in the room, making them feel comfortable about opening up and speaking freely and candidly on the topic at hand, is essential for teasing out the kind of insights that separate great from mediocre project learning.
  • The best moderators walk a very fine line between “relating” and “distancing”—that is, between connecting emotionally with the group, yet maintaining the emotional detachment necessary to effectively manage the flow of the discussion.

(3) Spirit:  Having a kind of fire and lively imagination (but not blustering) produces the living embodiment of the moderator.

  • The best moderators have the kind of energy that keeps respondents (and observers too) fully engaged in the process.
  • I’ve never believed in staying seated as a moderator (perhaps because I’ve never been able to).  When the group energy feels like it’s sagging, I get up and walk around the table; I sit in an empty seat for awhile; I kneel on one knee at the far end of the table; I find myself sitting on a credenza against the wall.

As moderators, our physical expression (how we use our bodies, our voice, and the way we look—how we dress, our facial expressions) acts in support of our psychological qualities to manage a group, to connect with participants, to elicit the insights needed.

Joseph Jefferson (famous 19th-century American actor) called the combination of understanding, sensibilities, and spirit, supported by physical expression in acting, as having a “warm heart and a cool mind.”  The same goes for focus group moderating.  The best moderators genuinely care about and enjoy their respondents (warm heart), and are at the same time relentlessly curious about what their respondents think, how they feel, and why they behave the way they do (cool mind).

Further (and finally), it’s no stretch to say that, like actors, moderators too have an audience—client observers and colleagues behind the glass and/or watching remotely—who count on us to educate, edify, and entertain.

*Acting:  A Handbook of the Stanislavski Method, compiled by Toby Cole, Three Rivers Press, 1947

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