Laying the Ground Rules for Focus Groups

At Standing, we listen. We believe the best communication starts with listening and that every client deserves a customized program, not a cookie-cutter solution. Each time we bring in a new client, we take them through a comprehensive “Discovery Process,” which helps us gain important insights of our new client’s business, their communications landscape and future goals. To get that intimate understanding of a client’s business, we also hold a number of focus groups with the client’s key stakeholders. This step is critical to understand perceptions of their internal and external brand ambassadors and how they might impact the future direction of our client’s business.

It can be an uncomfortable process, particularly for employees and other internal stakeholders, to give their honest feedback with co-workers, supervisors and/or supervisees in the room. Often employees worry about internal politics and feel like they need to hold back rather than giving honest feedback. But gaining the participants’ trust and making them feel comfortable is extremely important to ensure they engage in the conversation and share their important insights.

That’s why we establish focus group “ground rules” for every session and share them with the participants before asking questions. The facilitator of the focus group is charged with enforcing the “ground rules,” guiding the conversation and keeping participants engaged. For instance, if the facilitator notices a quiet participant, he or she may ask that participant a direct question to involve them. Or, if a few of the participants get off topic, the facilitator can redirect the conversation back to the discussion questions.

The most important “ground rule” we follow is: “We will expect and appreciate absolute candor.” It isn’t enough to show up for the focus group. Each participant must be engaged in the conversation by providing his or her honest feedback on the questions asked. Each response is valued. In our experience, this type of feedback isn’t only welcomed by the client, but expected. We can only make sound conclusions and recommendations when we receive open and honest responses.

Here are the rest of our favorite focus group “ground rules”:

  • Don’t hold back. It is safe for you to freely express your opinions without consequence.
  • We will allow team members to put new ideas on the table and let them develop. (There’s no such thing as a bad idea!)
  • We will engage in constructive/productive dialogue and feedback.
  • We will allow no sidebars (separate conversations, or body-language sidebars like eye-rolling, etc.).
  • Team members will respectfully disagree openly with each other – not passively or to others.
  • Team members have the right to challenge, criticize and/or disagree during the decision/discussion.
  • Team members have the right to question for clarity and the responsibility to give honest answers.
  • Team members have the responsibility to respect and build on the strength that diversity provides.

Do you have any good “ground rules” for engaging conversation? How do you enforce them?

  • Ashlyn Brewer

    These ground rules make perfect sense, and seem to lay the groundwork for a decent dialogue. However, as these rules are designed to foster honest and on-topic dialogue, how do you prevent one extremely vocal/opinionated person from dominating the discussion?