A lovely side effect of building an organizational culture of learning is that there’s a huge demand for qualitative research like interviews and focus groups. However, with so few internal evaluators, it’s hard to keep up with the demand.

I’ve trained a handful of non-evaluators at our youth center to conduct focus groups with youth – a great example of what capacity building looks like on a day-to-day basis. This is actually really, really easy because our youth workers are already skilled facilitators. They’re great public speakers, they pay attention to group dynamics, and they know how to bring the conversation back on track.

So instead of chatting about focus group basics like making sure you give everyone a chance to participate, my training emphasizes how facilitating a focus group is different from facilitating other types of group discussions (like afterschool workshops for teenagers or GED classes) that our staff members are already great at leading.

How is facilitating a focus group just like facilitating other types of group discussions? In both cases, facilitators should:

  • Pay attention to group dynamics. Keep the more talkative people from dominating the conversation. Encourage the more quiet individuals to share their opinions. Ask, “Is there anyone who hasn’t said anything yet who has something to contribute?” At the same time, recognize that some people won’t want to talk and you can’t force these people to participate. Don’t judge the people who don’t talk. Remember that everyone has different experiences. Encourage people with different opinions to speak up.
  • Keep the conversation moving along at a good pace. Keep the conversation on topic. Keep time. Be aware of the agenda.
  • Create a welcoming space where everyone feels safe to contribute. Assure participants that you’re looking for their opinions and that everyone’s opinion is important.
  • Establish ground rules and enforce those rules throughout the discussion. Address oppressive comments, like if someone makes a sexist comment. Address inappropriate behavior. Then, “lean in” to discomfort (when participants say something controversial or offensive, bring them back into the group again).
  • Ask people to elaborate by asking things like, “What do you mean by that?” or “Tell me more.”
  • Use whiteboards or large sheets of paper if you want to take notes of the big ideas that were shared.

But, when you’re facilitating a focus group:

  • There’s no “right” answer. All opinions and perspectives are correct and welcome. You’re not teaching factual information about a certain topic, you’re just discussing a topic and listening to their feedback.
  • The process is more important than the result. Your goal is to keep the conversation moving along on topic, but it doesn’t matter whether the participants agree or disagree with the questions you’re asking. For example, if you’re talking about whether the youth enjoyed a program, it doesn’t matter whether they loved or hated the program. Your job is to get them to express themselves and share detailed examples.
  • Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t know anything about the topic. I personally find that it’s always easier for me to conduct focus groups when I don’t know anything about the topic.
  • You may or may not synthesize the ideas at the end of the discussion. When there are a few different opinions on the table, it’s helpful for the participants (and for you! and for your notetaker!) to rephrase those opinions so that you can bring the conversation back together and make sure you understood everything correctly.

And when you’re facilitating another type of group discussion:

  • There is usually a “right” answer. Opinions and perspectives are valued, but when you’re teaching the group of participants about a certain content area then you need them to leave the group with factual information.
  • The end result is just as important as the process. You want to ask questions and move the conversation along so that participants get to the “right” answer at the end of the discussion. For example, if you’re talking with youth about the dangers of smoking cigarettes, then they need to leave the discussion with the understanding that cigarettes are bad for them.
  • You need to know a lot about the topic you’re discussing.
  • You need to synthesize and summarize the ideas at the end of the discussion.

These are the key similarities and differences that our tutors, mental health counselors, and youth workers helped me keep track of. What else should we add to our list?

Enjoy, Ann Emery

P.S. We developed these lists for group discussions with youth, but most characteristics would probably apply to group discussions with adults too.

P.P.S. For additional information, please check out Maria Gajewski’s post on the Changing River Consulting blog, What does a facilitator do?