|Manual for the Use of Focus Groups (Methods for Social Research in Disease) (International Nutrition Foundation for Developing Countries - INFDC, 1993, 97 pages)|
|Part II: Staff training for focus group discussions|
Because of the nature of focus groups, and the need for natural discussion by the participants, the atmosphere for the discussion is extremely important. There are many personal characteristics of the moderator that, if developed intentionally, can aid in producing excellent results from focus groups.
The list appears very long, and at first glance may make you feel that it is impossible to be all these things. Do not worry, it is just a matter of being aware of these issues, and as you gain more experience, practice more of them. You are not expected to be able to perform in this way at your first focus group!
To be able to perform well in a focus group, you will have practice sessions as well as theory lessons. Please try and make yourself as familiar with the materials as possible before the field focus groups begin.
You should also have enough background information about the topic you are working on to help you better understand the responses you get as well as to be able to follow up on critical areas. You will have been provided with a summary of the areas of interest to aid your understanding.
If you have any worries or difficulties, please let the team leader know so that any problems can be rectified. There will also be regular meetings to discuss the focus groups to see if there is anything that can be done to improve them.
Being a good listener is a good skill to develop. For focus groups, it is particularly important. You need to be able to listen to what the participants are telling you so you can summarise comments and repeat them back to the participants to check understanding; in addition it is only possible to gain information from the group if the moderator is not talking too much!
It is the role of the moderator to encourage the group to speak, rather than talk throughout the discussion. However, it is very easy to do this, especially if you are anxious about the success of the discussion. In addition, the moderator will not be taking many notes and therefore close attention to the discussion is necessary. You will need to be able to remember the comments and then relate them somehow to the next question, and to ask follow-up questions on the basis of what people say. Asking good quality follow-up questions is only possible if you are listening carefully to the participants' comments and really trying to think about what they mean.
The skill of good listening requires practice! You can practice this et home by listening to a group conversation and trying to remember the main points.
The role of the moderator is also that of a leader. Leadership does not mean taking over the group, but directing the discussion. On the other hand, you do not want the group to lead you. If this occurs you will not have time to get the information you need to meet the needs of the research project.
Techniques to keep the conversation on the subject will be discussed later.
Relationship with the participants
In order to encourage discussion, participants in focus groups need to be able to communicate with you comfortably. Even if you are local staff, you will probably not be working in your own villages. It is important to try to understand what the participants are saying and what it really means to them. Being sincere in learning about the community should be felt by the group. Good moderators are very sensitive to the needs of the community in which they work, and should be as familiar as possible with important aspects of the local culture.
Your tone of voice could tell the participants many things without you actually saying anything wrong! Where it is necessary to ask further questions so as to gain more information, this must be done in the most gentle and friendly way possible.
It is also extremely important not to be judgemental about any response you hear. People will not talk freely if they think they are being judged, if they feel that you disagree with them, or if they feel that they are giving the "wrong answers". There are no right or wrong answers in focus groups.
Patience and flexibility
Sometimes focus groups do not go as planned. This can occur by interruptions of many kinds. It helps to try to think of what these interruptions might be, but sometimes (often!) the unexpected happens. Babies need to be fed, more people turn up, the group doesn't work well together. Some groups may not talk much, or, at first not even arrive! If things happen that you cannot control, then you need to accept whatever happens. Always keep your sense of humour.
As well as listening to the participants' responses it will also be necessary to watch for anything that could indicate boredom, anxiety, tiredness, or impatience. If this occurs, be prepared to fix any problems swiftly.
It is always a good idea to find out how the local people would expect you to dress. If you are working in very poor communities you will not be well accepted in very expensive clothes. This could well distance you from the local people. On the other hand, some communities would expect a certain standard of dress, particularly if you represent a district or provincial health office. Find out from local staff the best thing to wear in the field.