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Don’t be scared to ride the silence

May 1, 2012

DalekWhen you are moderating a focus group or a depth interview, you know you need to get people talking and keep people talking and you know that it is your role to ask the questions in the right way so that it is a seamless and comfortable situation for all concerned.

So if you’re moderating and your respondents stop talking, it feels like a catastrophe.

You put a question out there and they say… nothing.  And then they continue to say nothing.  The silence seems like a really scary thing.  You imagine it is your fault and that you’ve asked a terrible question.  Maybe you made no sense.  Worse, maybe you’ve offended them.  Maybe they don’t like you, you wonder if they are looking at you with defiant eyes and anger in their souls.  Maybe they won’t say anything ever again and you’ve still got an hour to fill.  Maybe your boss or your client is watching and maybe they will judge you on the embarrassingly low quantity of words that you can get the respondents to say.  Maybe everyone is thinking how bad you are at your job.

The silence feels like it lasts an hour.

… and so you jump into it by rephrasing the question, or prompting them with examples, or moving on to the next section.

No, no need.  Don’t be scared to ride the silence.  Silence is your friend.

In the best case and most likely scenario, your respondents are simply thinking.  You have asked them an interesting probing question and they are considering their responses as you would want them to do.  Well thought out considered responses are going to be better for everyone, resulting in more depth and greater potential for discussion.  If you jump in, you’re cutting short their thought processes and removing the spontaneity.  Leave it a little while and the first person to formulate their thoughts will start talking.

An alternative scenario is that the respondents don’t want to answer.  Maybe it is a difficult question, a bit controversial, they’d rather not be the first one to speak.  But you’re a good researcher and you managed this in advance by building up the rapport and trust in the room.  They start looking at each other and eventually one steps up and gets things going again.  It is empowering for the group to manage the awkward moment, and they are happier in the discussion that follows.

Either way, I guarantee that if you don’t jump in someone will start the conversation back up within 20 seconds.

And if you know you’re in control, that 20 seconds doesn’t feel scary at all and the responses you get will be better for it.

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