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What is Mastery?

Posted on December 21, 2011 by Riva Market Research Training Institute

Mastery is not a term limited to a particular career or life skill such as being a doctor or a top-notch golfer or even the best professor at an Ivy League college.    When I first started moderating, my focus was not on mastery – it was on collecting the best data I could for my client’s decision making.  As I have grown in my skill set, I have learned a lot about a quality called mastery.

One definition of “mastery”:   The possession or display of great skill or technique that is visible to others.   Further refinement of the term leads to the addition of this quality:  a high level of proficiency.

So one could come to this understanding of mastery:   One who is visibly proficient at a skill or a technique.  Now I see the term everywhere:  Master Chef,  Master Chief [in the Navy]; Master Mechanic; Won the Masters Golf Tournament; Master Moderator; Master Electrician; Master Teacher and the list goes on.

Some things I have learned as I have grown into my title of Master Moderator.

  1.  Mastery is transparent – when you have truly mastered something, it is hard for others to see exactly how you do what you do so well…they see the results but not the actions leading to the results [A lot of people have a great golf swing but Tiger Woods has mastered the best ones to consistently win.]


  1. 2.     Mastery is not an event – it is a process, as one adds experiences to baseline knowledge or skills, the process of “mastering” grows exponentially and conversely, when the master is distracted, those skills fall off.  Tiger Woods being a good example of that while going thru marriage troubles and physical injuries and failing to win the top tournaments in a two-year period.


  1. 3.     The master is not always aware of what they have mastered – . Sometimes a master thinks:  “This isn’t hard …I can do it with ease,” forgetting what it actually took to make what they do look easy.


  1. 4.     If you have mastered something, then you can teach it to others.    This can be seen as “proof” of mastery – one knows what they know, in intimate detail such that they can impart the task portion of the skill set to others


In the world of moderating, there are a few parameters worth mentioning in case they are mistaken as proxies for mastery.  Moderating mastery is not a function of these factors:

– Number of years in qualitative research

– Number of qualitative research events led over time

– Types of clients served

– Amount of money charged for services

– Degrees earned or name of college/university attended

Early in my career, I met a moderator who had been leading focus groups for about 15 years, had a PhD in the social sciences and charged a lot for his services.   We were paired on a project and the night of the study he was assigned the 6pm group and I had the 8pm slot.   I looked forward to watching him work, hoping to pick up a few tips and instead I saw a remarkable example of “lack of mastery.”

His rapport building process was less than 1 minute and came framed in this sentence:  “I’m Dr ___ and it is your job to confess to me just how you are doing X in society.  I’m in charge here tonight and either you do things my way or you can take the highway.” 

I have never seen a room shut down faster in all the years I have been around focus group work. It was amazing to see how he stretched out the line of questions to fill the 90 minutes allotted for his session.  He got a lot of one word answers and a lot of “Hmm….don’t know…I’ll have to think about that one.”     He finished early and did not choose to stay to observe my group.    I told the client –“ Dr. _____ and I have different styles so I won’t be doing my group like his.”  Yes, that night, I learned a lot about mastery.

The concept of mastery is a great goal to strive for, and once reached will require maintenance.  Teaching may be the best discipline for keeping the knife of mastery sharp.


by Naomi Henderson