Facilitating focus groups is a specialized skill, and one most wellness professionals can learn. In a previous column, I outlined several tips for eliciting meaningful, actionable feedback. As you grow more comfortable, you can introduce interactive techniques to dig deeper and optimize the experience for group members and for yourself.
Engage Reluctant Participants
I led a group for a large nonprofit that forgot to follow my advice on how to recruit participants. We ended up with 2 attendees whose body language screamed, “I’m not doing this.” I like to have a cross-section of “engaged” and “unengaged” attendees, but everyone present should at least want to have their voice heard. On the other hand, attendees who initially appear resistant often are withholding valuable feedback, so I respectfully give them every chance to join in.
Experienced focus group facilitators often start with an ice-breaker. Many use puzzles or games related to the topic. You can learn so much simply by listening to participants collaborate. I frequently use the 2 techniques described here to encourage participants — especially those who may be reluctant — to interact openly and honestly.
Use Samples to Trigger Discussion
For focus groups on communication, samples are helpful. In advance, I have a designer sketch a mock-up of, say, a poster and a desk-drop (a promotional postcard intended to be left at each employee’s workstation). These are just tools. They needn’t be perfect facsimiles of materials I’m considering using. Group members work in pairs to list what they like and dislike about each piece. Then, either or both report their lists to the group. This gets everyone involved — easing them into the discussion while I collect information about things like message tone, pros and cons of posters vs. desk-drops, impact of images, program names, or whatever I’m trying to learn about. (If participants aren’t forthcoming or get stuck on a particular feature of each sample, I’ll ask them something like, “Tell me more: Which of these would be more likely to get you to register? Why?”)
Stop and Go
I use a stoplight system to obtain input on existing programs or features from focus groups. Each person gets green, yellow, and red cards. After we’ve talked about, for example, video promotions used to launch new wellness activities, I’ll ask everyone to hold up the green card if they believe the videos should be continued, yellow if they’re neutral, or red if they think the videos are a wasted effort. I keep this playful. If there’s time, I’ll even have participants make their own green, yellow, and red flags to jostle a different part of their brain. It gives everyone — even the most hesitant — an opportunity to be heard without going too far out on a limb or having to speak in front of others. (Note: This activity is intended only to stimulate discussion, not to interpret as a representative vote.)
Maintain curiosity about employees’ opinions and ideas. Over time, you’ll discover your own techniques to draw valuable feedback from focus groups. Ultimately, because trust is so important to this process, the approaches that best reflect who you are will be more effective than anything you can learn elsewhere.
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.