When I was about 15 years old, we had one of my more talkative friends from Sydney come and stay with us in Brisbane for a week during school holidays.  During dinner one night my father mortified me (which was his want) by saying to her

“You know, if you never let anyone else talk, you’re never going to learn anything”

You can imagine my horror.  But at the same time, even then, I knew that Dad had a point.

Years later, when I started to moderate my first focus groups and interviews, this piece of advice was reiterated to me.  I was nervous and they weren’t talking.  So I talked…lots…

Inexperienced moderators fall into the trap of trying to fill the silences.  Silences are awkward, they are uncomfortable and when we’re nervous, we feel compelled to fill them.  Silence implies a conversation gone bad.  It means that you, as the moderator / host, are doing something wrong and that I must work hard to get that silence filled and discussion flowing like the best dinner party you’ve ever attended.

As a novice moderator, I was concerned when there was too much silence in the room.  After all, there were clients in the other room, and they were expecting a show!  I filled each silence with a new question, a new probe.  I used my tricks – calling participants by name and asking questions.  But instead of creating the dinner party atmosphere of my dreams, instead I’d created a stilted question and answer interview environment.  The participants had learned that if they shut-up, I’d do all the hard work for them.

What I didn’t realise is that silences are opportunities. As moderators we can and should use this awkward pause in conversation to our advantage.  Just as we have the instinct to fill the silence, so do the participants.  And often, this is where some of the more interesting parts of the conversation are unveiled.

Little did I know that silences were going to become one of the most powerful tools in my moderator’s tool kit.  That silence is one of the tools you can use to ensure that you do have control over the room.  By leaving that silence, it encourages participants to perhaps raise that point that they’d been holding back on.  To add that other reason why they use the product or the different way they interact with the brand – that might be a little different to the way others do it.  It also lets the participants know that the onus on creating the conversation is on them, not you, the moderator.  So as hard as it is, take a breath and ride that silence out. Look down at your guide, write down some notes and see what happens… let them do the work.

Mind you, there are times when silence isn’t golden. If you have a dominant participant, then leaving silence allows them an opportunity to take control.  When there really isn’t anything more to add, staring the participants down in stony silence isn’t going to yield new insights.  But it is one tool to master and use – the trick is getting a feel for when it will work for you.

2 thoughts on “The sound of silence (or, why learning to ‘shut-up’ will make you a better moderator)

  1. Thanks Victoria – most senior researchers know that but it is so useful to be reminded

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