What Does It Take to be a Good Moderator?

Qualitative Market Research (QLMR) has changed over the past 25 years since I started in the field, but some things have stayed the same … including what it takes to be a good Moderator.

Once exposed to qualitative research, some people know immediately they want to moderate; others simply fall into the role. And unique to the QLMR industry, most who start to moderate tend to continue after they have started.

I believe what pulls people into, and keeps them in the field of qualitative research is the value they see from talking to people. The magic of good moderating is in getting more than surface feedback and getting below top-of-mind data to helps clients make decisions.

“The magic of good moderating is in getting more than surface feedback and getting below top-of-mind data to helps clients make decisions.”

Qualitative research is just one piece of a clients big puzzle, but it is such an important one. Relying on someone skilled to do the work is crucial.

What makes a Moderator good?

Through years of executing marketing research, and training qualitative professionals, we have found there are certain qualities shared by good Moderators.

Yes, anyone can ask questions. But is person charged with interviewing good at probing?

And, no matter who they are speaking to, whether the client team or the individuals they sit with in conversation, are they open to hearing different points of view? Are they respectful? Are they truthful?

From a qualitative research consulting standpoint, are they proposing the best methodology? Are they willing to push back and explain best practices? Are they able to make strong recommendations?

Regardless of one’s personality and style, Moderators are influenced by many things. Including, their upbringing and past experiences (good and bad) with others. And the most successful Moderators blend those experiences, their own personal traits, and learned QLMR skills to do a good — no, a great — job for clients. Here’s what to look for.

20 qualities good Moderators share:

1. They express warmth and empathy, creating a non-threatening, accepting atmosphere.

2. They appear kind yet firm, allowing a balance between control and permissiveness.

3. They are actively involved, but not ego-involved, in the discussion. They do not inject their opinions or attempt to educate participants.

4. They pay close attention to participants and use active listening skills. For example; nodding, keeping eye contact with participant, using correct rejoinders, and remembering earlier comments.

5. They pursue understanding of intentions and meanings. They probe for better understanding of participants’ thoughts. They do not use positive or negative inflection or equate verbalizations with nonverbal behaviors

6. They demonstrate Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR). The act of acknowledging the worth of each participant and their viewpoints as it pertains to the research at hand.

7. They link participants’ thoughts and comments. They tie together earlier comments that help them move onto other questions. This is not the same as analyzing data collected in the moment.

8. They demonstrate incomplete understanding or sophisticated naiveté. This signals a need for more detailed or in-depth information, yet not feigning ignorance. They express interest in new ideas, regardless of their own level of expertise on the topic.

9. They encourage all participants, including the shy ones, to participate as fully as they are able. Good Moderators will use non-verbal or verbal cues, timing of comments, and tone of voice.

10. They demonstrate flexibility and the willingness to vary their approach rather than be bound to the guide. They do not use their guide as a script, allowing them to pursue and capitalize on the “gold mines” participants have uncovered.

11. They demonstrate both sensitivity and respect toward participants. They encourage mutual respect among participants and know when to stop probing.

12. They demonstrate a research orientation, staying focused on the project purpose and direction.

13. They are self-starters and initiators. They do not just take orders from a client. Good Moderators make suggestions, accept full responsibility for running the research session, and making in-the-moment decisions as necessary.

14. They demonstrate quick thinking. They can rapidly spot potential opportunities or problems and finding ways to move towards or away from them.

15. They have physical and mental stamina.

16. They display a sense of humor and a personal light touch when appropriate.

17. They possess clarity about the project purpose. They have a strong knowledge base about appropriate research design, and thoughtful understanding of the requisite research tools.

18. They have a sufficient knowledge base about the topic area to ask good questions and probe effectively.

19. They have good people skills, appropriate training, an educational background in the sciences of human behavior, and/or tools and skills in how to manage group dynamics in a variety of settings.

20. Lastly, they can analyze and report qualitative data after the study so end-users can make effective decisions.

Three skills even the best moderators can strengthen:

  • Exhibiting Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) – #6 above. If a Moderator treats people with acceptance in their everyday encounters, it will be much easier for them to see participants in this light. Do not make fun of, or make negative comments about, any participants. The best Moderators will remind observers to avoid the same. It is easy to pass judgment comments about participants if you do not agree with them or want them to respond a certain way to the research. We must remember the participants are the target audience, whether the Moderator or a client/stakeholder agrees with their feedback.
  • Demonstrating incomplete understanding or sophisticated naiveté – #8 above.  This DOES NOT mean a Moderator needs to act dumb or unknowledgeable about what a participate is saying. Seek to understand a dynamic from the participant’s point of view, leaning into the fact that you do not have the exact life experience that they have.
  • Possessing clarity about the project purpose – #17 above. If a Moderator and the stakeholder know and are clear on the project purpose, it will allow you to write and ask appropriate questions and stay on track. If the purpose is unclear, you can go down the wrong path and participants can steer you away from the “gotta-gotta” you need to uncover. Asking questions is only part of what a Moderator does. It is asking the right questions to get data for the client that is paramount.

So, you want to start moderating?

If you are a Moderator, or are looking to become one, you probably have some or many of the qualities mentioned above. There are some that are innate, like number 1 (expressing warmth and empathy), and some that take time to master, such as number 7 (linking comments) and number 14 (quick thinking).

Most Moderators do not come out of the gate being “good” at all skills listed above. Give yourself grace if you have not mastered all of them. Take your time and learn from mistakes and things that don’t work.  Work towards them and allow yourself to adjust your thinking and behavior.