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Trash the Discussion Guides!

Discussion Guides Should turn into Listening Guides

To be perfectly honest with you, I loathe the whole process of drafting a discussion guide for qualitative research. Despite my personal feelings, it’s a necessary process — but not for the reasons you think.

As researchers, our job is to listen to your business problems and translate that into a set of learning objectives. From there, we go out and listen to the right people to provide insight into your business problem.

In my mind, the document is really a Listening Guide.

To prove my point, let’s do the math on a typical discussion guide.

In writing up this article, I reviewed a client-approved discussion guide, and it contained nearly 4,000 words for an hour-long interview. The average person (in a conversation) speaks about 150 words per minute, or 9000 words per hour. There are two people in an in-depth interview, which really equates to 4,500 words per person per hour.

So, if the moderator uttered every word in this example discussion guide, the moderator would consume almost half of the airtime. Not good.

The most important aspect of qualitative research is active listening.

Decades of behavioral psychology prove that to be an active listener you should only talk 20% of the time. This means that, in a 60-minute interview, the moderator should only utter 1,800 words or less. That’s less than half of the words in the 4,000-word discussion guide!
Discussion Not an Interrogation
Even though a lot of energy goes into drafting a discussion guide, a skilled moderator will never ask every question. The interview is a discussion, not an interrogation!

A skilled moderator knows what’s in the discussion guide, intently listens, and knows when a question has been answered without asking it. From there, we guide the conversation to ensure that we get at your objectives, not your questions. If you understand this concept, you’ll appreciate why I choose to call it a Listening Guide.

The other function of a discussion guide is to ensure clients that we have listened to them.

In today’s busy cross-functional teams, the process of drafting a discussion guide is essential for alignment. After we’ve collected the input from everyone and put it in writing, the process of reviewing and editing the guide ensures we are all on the same page. While we appreciate the edits and creative suggestions, that’s not what we are listening for. It is very common in a discussion guide review to find that we are not aligned on the actual objectives, despite the hard work put into a scope of work.

So, I’m sorry to break the news to you: it’s very likely that your favorite questions will never get asked. We apologize in advance. If we’ve met your objectives, however, then let’s consider it a success.

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