Tips to keep control of group discussions

Editor’s note: Maxwell Wang is founder of qualitative marketing research firm RESEARCHISM, China.

From a social psychological perspective, group discussions with more than two participants often witness the emergence of at least one opinion leader. These individuals typically possess either extensive experience or strong articulation skills and tend to become the most vocal person in the group. 

At the start of a focus group discussion, the moderator may intentionally prompt the opinion leader to speak more to set the tone and encourage other respondents to share. Hearing responses from opinion leaders is not usually an issue. But when moderators want to know about attitudes, their viewpoints can heavily sway other respondents or introduce bias into the discussion.

Managing their influence without appearing to control it requires finesse. Occasionally, clients may send urgent notes requesting moderators to rein in opinion leaders. While most moderators are aware of this situation, they can't silence them abruptly. Therefore, it imposes a challenge: How can moderators skillfully handle opinion leaders in group discussions while avoiding direct interruptions?

Tips to redirect group discussions

Shift eye contact

When the opinion leader speaks at length, the moderator should naturally shift their eye contact to other respondents, but still subtly nod to indicate continued attention. Lack of direct eye contact often prompts the speaker to pause involuntarily, affording the moderator an opportunity to smoothly redirect the conversation and naturally invite other respondents to share their thoughts and opinions.

Ask other participants direct questions

To prevent the opinion leader from immediately voicing their viewpoint and potentially influencing others, the moderator can structure the discussion by posing questions to other respondents first, ensuring the opinion leader responds last. 

The moderator can further prevent their viewpoints dominance by initiating the discussion with the respondent sitting next to them and rotating the speaking order in an opposite direction. In this way, the opinion leader “naturally” becomes the last contributor.

However, deliberately skipping the opinion leader when it is their turn to speak is too conspicuous and risks creating an awkward atmosphere.

Intervene if necessary

If the opinion leader's monologue persists or the mothods mentioned above prove ineffective, moderators must politely intervene. Common phrases for interruption include:

  • "Sarah made an interesting point. Now, let's hear from Cindy."
  • "That's Mike's perspective. What do the rest of you think?"
  • "Ben shared his viewpoint. Edward, you mentioned a different purchasing approach earlier, could you elaborate?"

It is challenging to use these phrases without respondents becoming aware of the interference and disrupting the natural conversation flow. Moderators should aim to gradually reduce the influence of the opinion leader, particularly if their contributions are not overly aggressive or biased. Ultimately, the goal is to create an environment where all respondents can express themselves and feel comfortable doing so without hesitation or fear of conflicting ideas.

The benefits of having opinion leaders in group discussions  

In certain situations, opinion leaders can play a valuable role. For instance, when moderators pose challenging or abstract questions or when other respondents are at a loss, opinion leaders, with their quick thinking, reaction and strong expressing skills, can effectively steer the discussion by speaking first and inspiring others. Meanwhile, when others stray away from the intended topic, opinion leaders may help introduce new perspectives to level up the discussion with their clear train of thought.

In group interviews, opinion leaders act like car accelerators. They drive discussions forward when necessary but require delicate intervention to prevent them from overshadowing other voices. And, when the discussion starts to lag or lose momentum, a gentle stimulation from these opinions leaders can help revitalize the conversation.