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Leading focus group discussions: Tips from our Field Manager

Dinabandhu Bharti 29 August 2022

©Heather Lanthorn

Focus groups  gather people together to discuss a particular topic and in our work, these discussions cover topics in a variety of sectors, including agriculture, health, and sanitation. 

For these conversations, field managers at IDinsight, myself included gather together four to ten people and collect data from this group. In a focus group discussion (FGD), much of the conversation should happen between members of the group, not with the facilitator talking. Because FGDs are not interviews, even though they use open-ended questions like in semi-structured one-on-one interviews, it requires different preparation and skills to facilitate. A facilitator or moderator must effectively encourage group discussion and debate while keeping the conversation on track.

In this post, we focus on practical tips for the data collection team (from a data collection team!) to use once the full research team has determined that FGDs will produce the best, most decision-relevant data for a particular client question and has decided on the right size and composition for the group. We hope this will be useful for Field Management teams’ data collections as they prepare for their first – or even 100th! – FGD.

 Tips for staffing for FGDs

  • Choose the right moderator/facilitator: While choosing a moderator/facilitator to lead your FGD, it is important to pick someone that understands the language, culture, and other sensitivities specific to a particular group. For example, in certain situations or for gender-sensitive topics it might particularly be helpful to have a female facilitator. 
  • Assign a note-taker: As facilitators mostly focus on maintaining rapport, balance, and staying on topic during the FGD, we strongly advocate for having a note-taker (more on assigning note-takers below).

Prepping: What the Field Management team should do before a focus group

  • Equipment check: Make sure you have everything you need to conduct your discussion effectively. Check for pen, paper, etc. You could also bring a ‘talking stick’ or other objects that can be used to pass to others to maintain who is in the ‘speaker’ at any given time.
  • Wear appropriate clothing: Deciding what to wear is important. Remember to share and review clothing guides prepared by your team.
  • Get familiar with the focus group discussion guide: Familiarise yourself with both the questions and the intention and learning goals behind each discussion. No matter how well you know the discussion guide, you should still bring a print out of the questions with you. 
  • Pick a spot to conduct the FGD: It’s important to get a space where group members will not be distracted and privacy can be maintained. Try to pick a quiet place to conduct the discussion.
  • Understand and learn about your group: Background information of the group is always handy when you go for a FGD; whether the group members are teachers, villagers, only male/female or a mix of both, as they will be participating in a group activity, knowing about the dynamics of the group will provide you with an extra edge.

Setting up: What the Field Management team should do at the beginning of a focus group

  • Have people sit in a circle, so that everyone is ‘equal’ and it is not like you are lecturing them: Sitting in a circle gives you a chance to make equal eye contact (or other context-appropriate ways to show you are actively paying attention to them) with everyone in that circle. It also provides an advantage to the facilitator to understand/read the participants’ faces and expressions. 
  • Introduce yourself to each person, obtain informed consent, and learn what name they would like to be called: Everyone’s preferred name should be noted during the introduction to ensure there isn’t any ethics violation. The picture below demonstrates how we recommend writing down people’s names. Calling a respondent by their name is essential, not only does it give them a sense of pride and importance, but it further makes them feel more involved in the process. 
Photo credits: Vinod Sharma, Senior Field Manager, IDinsight
  • Aim to be level with the group participants: As shown in the image below, the facilitators should be level with the participants. Further, at the beginning of the discussion, make sure you are audible and ask participants if they can hear you. Maintain the same volume throughout the discussion.
Photo credits: Vinod Sharma and Sumedha Jalote conduct a focus group discussion with members of a farmer producer organisation in Nalanda, Bihar.
  • Introduce yourselves and the objectives of the discussion: The facilitator must start with an introduction to clarify the objectives of the discussion. They should clarify who they are, their role in the program/project, the organization, and how the discussion relates to the people who are participating. The introduction should also clearly state, “this is not a test, and that no answers/view is right or wrong.” Statements such as the one mentioned above help create an atmosphere where participants are more likely to engage in discussions.
  • Help the participants warm up before you dive in: Once introductions and objective have been set, the facilitator should frame the conversation. Start with some ‘warm up’ questions to help people get used to talking to each other. 
  • Don’t forget to build a rapport with the participants: Help your participants settle in by making them understand how the group will work. Asking standard rapport building questions like: common problems faced by the village, possible solutions to resolve these problems, etc. can help you achieve this.

Conducting: What the Field Management team should do during a focus group

Conducting a focus group discussion requires skills and spontaneity. A thumb-rule for facilitating a discussion in such situations is to follow the conversation attentively, intervene only when necessary, and always make the individuals participating feel involved and heard. Simple gestures such as making eye contact while asking questions, appreciating group members for speaking out, respecting the different opinions shared by individuals, etc. are effective ways to involve participants. Facilitators should also:

  • Plan well for the discussion: Make sure to follow the agreed-upon questions or guidelines rigorously, but try not to read off the paper too much – make the discussion as natural as possible. After asking a question, listen more to what the participants say and speak only when needed. Make sure you aren’t interrupting an answer and share your inputs between others’ answers. Remember you are a facilitator, so you should speak less and listen more. 
  • Allot time to collect everyone’s perspectives: Once you receive an answer, it’s always good to reconfirm if participants want to add more to the discussion. This is done primarily to encourage participation from those members of the group who spoke less or remained silent. You should avoid asking questions to one individual and taking only their opinion, as this may lead to misrepresentation of information. Being a part of a group discussion, everyone is entitled to have different opinions. However, as a facilitator, you must ensure that no one feels pressured into agreeing with another’s views. Always try to get another perspective on a subject. If a person answers a particular way, try getting another participant’s opinions on the same topic. If you feel that a few respondents are diverting from the topic during the discussion, intervene and repeat your questions with their meaning. Try to keep the conversation from veering too far away from the main topic and gently bring people back to the topic being discussed. Probe respondents to share and/or elaborate on their points without leading them toward a particular direction or answer. 
  • Assign a note-taker:  As mentioned above in staffing, conducting an FGD requires lots of thinking and processing people’s responses, and as facilitators mostly focus on maintaining rapport, balance, and staying on topic, we strongly advocate for having a note-taker as well as a high-quality audio recorder at hand. The note-taker should position themselves in a way by which respondents cannot see their notes. Doing so ensures ease in conversation as the respondents are not distracted by looking at the notes. Further, they should try to take as many notes as possible during the interaction and should aim to complete their notes on the same day itself. Keeping that in mind it is advisable to conduct two FGDs per day. 
  • Remember your attitude and body language are important: Your attitude and body language must be positive (smiling even when you get an awkward response or not showing signs of negative impressions through your body language can help) while framing a question and listening to participants’ responses. It is critical for the entire group to feel that their opinions are valued and as the facilitator, maintaining eye contact with the group members while asking questions and listening to their response can help; no singular person should feel less or more important during the discussion.
Photo credits: Vinod Sharma; Vinod Sharma and Sumedha Jalote conduct a focus group discussion with members of a farmer producer organisation in Ganjam, Orissa.

“Always keep a smile on your face and maintain full energy throughout the group discussion. This will make the focus group discussion more lively.” – Dinabandhu Bharti, Senior Field Manager, IDinsight

Finishing up: What the Field Management team should do to close the focus group

  • Thank your participants:  At the end of the discussion, ask the participants if they want to add anything they could not do during the discussion and always remember to thank them for their time and participation. 
  • Go through all notes: Go through all the notes you put together and add the things which are missing including body language of the participants and other observations you feel need to be mentioned.

While conducting an effective focus group discussion can be difficult, they get easiier with experience. The facilitator should remember to center the discussion around general and more common topics. If the intent is to discuss more personal issues then we suggest considering one-on-one interviews with the respondents. We hope these suggestions help you plan your next focus group discussion.


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