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Series 6 - Focus groups: How to deal with tricky situations (10 Jun 19)

What to do when someone becomes upset and distressed during a focus group

It is not surprising that some people get upset during a focus group as some topics can be sensitive.

Even when you donít consider that the topic is sensitive, the discussion may raise issues or recollections that can distress some people.

If a member of your focus group seems uneasy or upset you can try point out the sensitive nature of the conversation to the group so as to acknowledge that you realise a subject may be hard to discuss.

It is better not to single out the person who seems upset when you say this, otherwise they may feel put on the spot. You are recognizing and acknowledging more broadly the sensitive nature of the discussion and saying it is ok to be upset.

Avoid comforting them as often people who look upset might find it hard to say why they are upset. But generally it is best if people can talk about it, as often they will actually be happy to admit they are upset.

Surprisingly people will also often talk through their tears in a group setting.

It might seem trivial but if you are aware itís a potentially sensitive subject, have some tissues handy.

You the moderator may look sympathetic but you must remain impartial and not divulge your own opinion.

Other group members may become very supportive and rally around by saying they have had similar experiences in their lives. Again as the moderator you have to decide if itís relevant to what you are doing.

If someone is weeping, then this is very different from someone who is tearful.

You may need to turn the tape off for a short while, explaining clearly that you are doing so.

It is important not to treat participants as if the group is a therapy group. It isnít. Itís a group that has a research or evaluation purpose.

In general if someone appears visibly upset do not move toward them or touch them.

If the person continues to be upset you might be tempted to call a short break for the whole group. Avoid doing this if you can, as the dynamic of the group process may be disrupted.

Try instead to deal with the situation as far as possible in the group, anticipating that other group members will help out. You might suggest to the person that he/she might like to take a short break and rejoin the discussion when they feel ready.

Try to think of how their distress relates to the topic of the discussion and if possible make some comments underlining the value of their contribution and strong feelings. You may be able to say for example that the research is a way of enabling such strength of feeling to be communicated (in a general, not a personal way) to a wider audience.

Donít forget that your ethical responsibility is to all the participants in the group and you need to ensure their welfare while they are participating.

You could consider offering a follow up debriefing opportunity or a referral to someone who has the professional skills to offer support after the session.

Find out information about specific support services that could be of relevance so that you can provide this information if needed to group participants at the end of the discussion.

To run an in house course on this topic email me at rod@rodlaird.co.uk


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