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Quick Tips on Managing “Difficult” Respondents

Posted on May 10, 2024 by brittany

When students new to moderating first come to RIVA, often, their concerns about moderating stem from dealing or seeing challenges with Respondents in qualitative research session. Respondents, like Moderators, come in all varieties of personality types and, sometimes, they can prove difficult to manage when, as a Moderator, you’re trying to reach your study’s purpose.

Over Talkative/Dominating Respondents

Because many of us were raised on the pretense that it’s rude to interrupt adults or cut people off, it’s often a struggle for Moderators to feel comfortable managing the Respondents who dominate the conversation.

Because many of us were raised on the pretense that it’s rude to interrupt adults or cut people off, it’s often a struggle for Moderators to feel comfortable managing the Respondents who dominate the conversation.

  1. New York Times Headline
    My favorite tip to give students is to ask long-winded Respondents to provide them a “New York Times Headline” version of their story in order to sum up their thoughts in a short phrase. If Respondents are on topic, it’s not fully necessary to cut them off or move them along, but you also can’t let them take ten minutes to tell you a story about the topic. Ask them for a shortened version.

    Alternative for younger generations: “Give me that in a tweet.” [Tweets have limited characters, so it signals to Respondents to provide a short reply.]

  2. Put an instruction for “equal air time” in your Ground Rules and remind them of the ground rule when necessary.
    RIVA’s ground rules always include this ground rule so that it provides us a means to manage the room. If someone is dominating the conversation or answering every question first, a quick reminder of this ground rule can help manage it.

  3. Direct your question to a different side of the room.
    Typically, you would throw your question to the center of the table and let whoever answers pick it up first. When you have someone chomping on the question first every time, a technique to hear from others is to simply say, “I’d like to hear from this side of the room on the next question…” [and direct to the other side of the table].

  4. Break eye contact/don’t make eye contact.
    Moderators who’d attended a RIVA training know that maintaining eye contact is an important part of moderating. In order to curb someone who answers all the time, don’t make eye contact with them. If you have to, move out of their range of vision or stand behind them. This will help encourage others to speak and discourage the dominator.

Respondents who are chatterboxes tend to know this about themselves! Even if you have to cut them off – it typically won’t cause them to shut down. They will bounce back later in the group.

Quiet or Uninvolved Respondents

It’s worth noting that encouraging quieter Respondents starts when you first say “hello” and create the emotional handshake. People who are typically shier need that connection and reassurance that you care about what they have to say.

  1. If you have a quiet Respondent, your first attempt will be to throw the next question to their side of the room – similar to what you would do to avoid a dominator.

    Example: “I’d like to hear from this side of the room, what do you say to yourself when I say ‘green dog food’?”

  2. When asking a question, make and hold eye contact with the person who is quieter. This provides a clear indication you want to hear from them while also establishing and maintaining rapport with them.

  3. Another method to hear from those quieter Respondents is asking to hear from someone you haven’t already heard from.

    Example: “Someone I haven’t heard from, what are your thoughts on Mary’s response?”

  4. Next step is to call on them directly. Give them a softball question – something easy to answer.

    Example: “Elias, when have you had an experience like this?”

  5. Make use of private writing exercises.

    The rationale here is that they can own what they wrote down.

    Even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing, you’ll at least have something written down as part of their contribution.

If none of the techniques work, it’s best to continue your group with the focus on the whole group. If the respondent contributes later on, then that’s great. If not, you’ll have the information from the rest of the group and you don’t want to lose time continuing and failing to encourage someone who won’t participate.

Disruptive Respondents

It’s rare, at least in RIVA’s experience, that Respondents reach a point where they are disruptive in a way that affects the Moderator’s ability to get their project’s purpose. When this does happen, it is best to remove the respondent in a sensitive way. Remove their chair from the table. Then, re-establish rapport with the remaining Respondents.

Managing Respondents is one of the many balls the Moderator has to juggle when conducting focus groups. With the tips in this blog, Moderators can be better prepared to handle a variety of Respondents.

Written by: Brittany Mohammed, Qualitative Training & Research Specialist at RIVA