No-one likes unexpected role-play: how to get the most from your group session

Lucy Proudfoot

Lucy Proudfoot on Jan 22, 2014

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To communicate more effectively with people we need to understand them better.

To do this we can do various things but assuming we’re using research we can use quantitative methods to get figures, stats and trends about people – the what, the where, the when – or we can use qualitative research to help us understand the how and the why. Or of course, we can use both.

When carrying out qualitative research it is likely to involve running group sessions which immediately creates difficulties seeing as group dynamics can change people. Below are just a few tips to help you get the most from your group and reach new levels of information.

Invest time upfront

Have a very clear idea of what your outcome is, or if you’re running the session on someone else’s behalf, make sure you’ve established what their desired outcome is and keep this at the forefront of your mind at all times.

Consider the best structure for your group: would an open discussion or breakout groups work better? How many people should be in the group? What type of person do you want? What is their relationship with the topic?

The session starts the moment you invite people to it. When inviting people remember two key things:

  • Be honest. That is, always give people a rough idea of what the session entails – are they going to be asked to share anything particularly personal. Is any level of ‘performance’ expected? Being faced with unexpected role-play is some (most) people’s worst nightmare and will immediately extinguish engagement
  • Sound excited. THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO PUT SUPER EXCITING EXCLAMATION MARKS ALL OVER YOUR EMAIL!! But it does mean that you have to sound as if you are looking forward to the session, otherwise why on earth would anyone else be?

Set the tone on the day

Remember that as facilitator it is almost impossible for you not to have an impact on the group:

  • If you’re open and friendly people are more likely to be the same – (but avoid the ‘I should have been a holiday rep’ vibe)
  • If you’re quiet, secretive and constantly taking notes it will make people feel uneasy and quiet.

Never scrimp on the introduction. It’s incredibly tempting to rush through this bit, especially if time is tight but I strongly advise giving it as much time as possible. This is the bit where you can put people on common ground by giving everyone a chance to say something.

Think of it like small talk – get it right and you’ll find your way to generating deeper, more meaningful conversations but get it wrong and you’ll find yourself forever chatting about the weather or some football team your granddad loosely supports and really, you know nothing about.

Never underestimate people’s natural urge to conform and be part of the norm.

It can be hugely challenging for humans to strike a balance between conforming (merging and belonging) and being individual – this fear of bucking the trend or rocking the status quo can skew results. (Experience of handling dominant/ quiet participants helps with this).

Reduce this practice of conforming by spending time making people feel comfortable around each other – this will encourage people to give more honest answers.  Try this:

    • Encourage each person to say something that is a bit private/that we don’t know. In this situation people will have, consciously or not, chosen to say something that puts them in a certain light to other people in the group.
    • A participant  may have chosen to say ‘I love to ride bikes’ out of any number of things he/she could have said
    • To provoke and get a little closer to other possible answers rather than responding with ‘why do you like bikes?’ ask them why they chose to disclose that particular piece of information out of others they could have chosen.

Finally remember to always respond positively or neutrally. It as a massive privilege that people are willing to share private information with you so treat it with respect and even offer up  some of your own bits of information to show you’re serious.