Many RIVA students come to the Fundamentals of Moderating course with the question of how to handle challenging respondents. Often, this concern is born from the fear of the type of respondent who likes to talk – whether they are intentionally dominating the conversation or not – and the additional fear that this respondent will take them down a rabbit hole that is off topic.
First, here at RIVA, we often caution our students about dismissing the “rabbit holes” as off topic because sometimes those excursions will lead to the best “gold nuggets” for your client.
Tangents, though, can be detrimental to a Moderator, who is already juggling – often – too many client needs in a fixed amount of time.
Before I go into some techniques, I want to acknowledge that we all have been taught since we were kids that it’s rude to interrupt people. However, in a qualitative research event [QRE], it’s the Moderator’s job to get the data as it pertains to the purpose statement from respondents, so the occasional interruption of someone who is taking the group down a rabbit hole is necessary.
[And the other respondents will thank you.]
How to Interrupt
- Put it in the ground rules!
Moderators, especially those new to the task, find the best way to give themselves permission to interrupt respondents is in the ground rules they deliver at the start of their qualitative research event. An example:
“I have two jobs today, one of those is to ask questions and the other is to get you out of here on time. To that end, I may need to move us along in order to get through all the questions I have and make sure we honor that time for you.”
- Ask the respondent to explain connection to the original question.
Sometimes, as a Moderator, it’s hard to connect the train of a Respondent’s story to the question you originally asked. It makes sense, then, to ask them to link the two together.
“How does X connect to Y?”
If it does connect, they’ll make the link for you and, if not, they know you need the answer to the original question. Respondents aren’t out to derail your group – they want to help you. None will take offense to you asking them to help get your job done.
- Simply interrupt them!
It sounds obvious but it’s true. You have a job to complete, and the respondents know that at the outset if you have set up your QRE correctly. It’s okay to interrupt someone who is taking too much airtime.
“I’d love to hear the rest of that but I do need to move us along… [next question].”
This is much easier to do when you have already prepared them in the ground rules because the respondents know to expect it. Those who are the typical over-talkers know that about themselves, so you don’t need to worry about them not continuing to participate.
Techniques Specific to In-Person
All the techniques thus far can be utilized in both a virtual and in-person qualitative research event. The following are some techniques that can be utilized when your session is in-person.
In-person allows the moderator to implement a different set of tactics to handle long-winded respondents.
- Stop giving them eye contact.
At RIVA, we teach that eye contact is incredibly important for maintaining rapport with respondents, which also makes it the easiest way to keep one respondent from dominating the discussion. The respondent should take this break of eye contact as a signal to wrap up their thought.
- Stand behind them while asking the next question to the other side of the room.
This is a technique that a Moderator should use if they are routinely experiencing long tangents from a particular respondent. It’s not needed for the one or two, but rather for someone who keeps filling up time. As a moderator, not only do you need to manage time, but also manage hearing from everyone in the group.
Though it’s necessary to interrupt for the sake of your group and the time limit, it’s important to note that there are moments when interrupting a respondent can be detrimental to the environment. One example is a non-talkative respondent who is taking a longer time to say something. If you interrupt the person who has barely spoken – you might lose them.
Other cases might include when someone is sharing an emotional story [if it pertains to your group and is on topic]. Acknowledging the courage of sharing that story and moving to your next question as gracefully as possible may be the only option.
Like with all things, use your best judgment.
As a Moderator, there will come a time when you need to interrupt a respondent in order to move your group along. That’s okay! Use your ground rules to help you and accept it will happen and that it won’t affect the QRE.
Written by: Brittany Anger Mohammed, RIVA Qualitative Training & Research Specialist