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How to Talk About Sensitive Issues in Focus Groups

featured / focus group / blog / qualitative / research design

Focus groups can be a powerful tool for gathering data on experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions. But what if the topic is one that people might consider sensitive, such as sexual assault, bankruptcy, or alcohol abuse? At FMG, when we conduct focus groups on these topics, we are aware that participants may, understandably, not want to talk about these issues in front of other respondents, and that the discussion could be upsetting. However, a well prepared moderator and careful planning can create a safe space for participants to discuss sensitive topics.

Focus Group at Fors Marsh Group

If you want to conduct focus groups that address sensitive subjects, keep a few things in mind:

  1. Characteristics and Role of Your Moderator
    For general topics, any well prepared moderator is able to successfully lead a group; but when dealing with a sensitive topic, consider whether employing a moderator who shares characteristics with the participants may be warranted. The moderator should explicitly tell participants that they are not there to be judged or evaluated; the moderator should also ask questions and react in an impartial and non-judgmental way. And when sensitive topics are being discussed, the moderator must monitor the conversation and move it along if any interactions between participants become problematic.
  2. Group Composition
    Try to structure your groups so that participants share the experience or characteristic you are discussing—people with similar issues likely feel more comfortable in a discussion about those issues. We recently conducted groups with consumers who were facing debt issues and we found that participants were happy to discuss their experiences. Some of this discussion was likely because we were able to say, "Everyone is here today because you all have had this same experience, and we’re interested in hearing about it."
  3. Structure of the Groups
    The typical focus group discussion starts with general topics and narrows to more specific issues as the group progresses. This is especially key in groups with sensitive topics, so that participants are able to introduce themselves and have some initial discussions before jumping into more delicate issues. The discussion guide should also include some bail-out options, so if a line of questions or a particular topic is proving too sensitive for participants, the moderator can easily move on to another subject.
  4. How the Discussion and Questions Are Framed
    Think about how to phrase questions in a way that avoids grilling each individual. When we do focus groups with high school students on tobacco usage, we don’t ask, "Do you smoke?" This would be asking someone underage to admit to an illegal behavior and isn’t really the research goal. Instead we ask, "What are reasons someone like you might start smoking?" Participants may talk about their experience, but this allows them to share without having to talk about things they are not comfortable revealing.

Finally, keep in mind that you may not always recognize a sensitive issue. We conducted groups with parents of teenagers about how they helped their children make decisions about college and careers. We were asking what we considered innocuous questions, but in one group a mother started crying when talking about troubles she was facing with her child. The other parents immediately rallied around to reassure her, talking about similar troubles they had faced. In the end, we believe this parent left the group feeling better, but it was a good reminder that any discussion has the potential to be a sensitive one.

To see more of FMG’s capabilities, visit our Capabilities page.


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