Building Rapport as a Moderator

05 May 2016 | Research & Business Knowledge

As researchers we need to establish rapport quickly and sustain it as we gain insight from complete strangers on an issue that is unfamiliar to us. So how can NLP enable us to do this?

The map is not the territory

How the world looks to us is not the same as it is for our focus group respondents. As we sit preparing for another group of respondents with briefcase, armfuls of stimulus material and our ubiquitous laptop, our respondents come from quite a different place. They have juggled family or work responsibilities to get there and are probably worried whether they will be able to answer the questions. How can we reassure them? Maybe we could just slow down when we gabble through the usual MRS Code of Conduct requirements because respondents are hearing it for the first time and are unfamiliar with the process (we hope!).

We explain that stimulus material is unfinished and that elements can be changed but this is all new and unfamiliar territory. Maybe we could demonstrate what we mean by showing them a pack of a familiar product and ask them what they would change in terms of colour, style, font, strap line and so on just to demonstrate what you are looking for before showing them your research materials.


Observe whether they are speaking from their own experience or their imagined experience. You can do this by watching their eyes.

If their eyes look to your left they are constructing images rather than recalling them from their own experience.

The VAK on the diagram refers to whether they focus on what they see (visual), what they hear (auditory) or what they feel and do (kinaesthetic).


Visual respondents will be particularly good at working with visual material and enjoy being creative in the group. Auditory respondents will enjoy the discussion. Kinaesthetic respondents will enjoy the tasks – they’ll be the first to jump out of their chair to group brands on the floor or sticking pictures on a board.  Have a good selection of activities or if the project specifically requires a visual strength, recruit on that basis.

Be aware too of your own VAK. Do you say, “I can see what you’re saying” (V), “I hear what you’re saying” (A) or “I can grasp what you’re saying”(K)? Use a variety of VAK in your topic guide to engage with the entire group.


We are expected to establish rapport quickly and build it during the session so that by the end respondents feel they can share their feelings and you will meet your brief. NLP gives us some great techniques for building rapport.

The first is matching and mirroring. We can match respondents’ appearance by dressing much like them rather than arriving in a business suit. We can match their language patterns and we can match body language by sitting like them. Visual people speak very quickly and with a higher pitch compared to the slower and slightly lower toned auditory respondent so match respondent pace and tone for increased rapport.

Notice their filters. Some respondents find detail harder to grasp others struggle with big picture concepts. Some want to agree with everyone, others want to disagree. Some focus on what they don’t want whereas others talk about what they do want. Some can cope with several different concepts but others want to choose one and get the job done. Being aware of the difference will help you understand the group dynamics and you can alter the way you ask the questions to suit the way your respondents process it.

We can obtain richer feedback from our groups by challenging deletions, distortions and generalisations. Deletions are when someone uses a comparative adjective but deletes the context such as ‘that’s much better’ or ‘I like that one more’; we need to challenge the deletion by asking ‘better than what, in what way better?

Distortion is when we make assumptions about what respondents mean rather than reflecting back your summary as a question before presenting it to the group as a whole for discussion. Respondents sometimes do this to each other as well, so step in and do a comprehension check.

Generalisations are when respondents claim that they ‘always do……’ or ‘never buy……’ challenge this by reflecting the generalisation back to them. For example, ‘you never use Tesco’s own brand?’ Exceptions can be revealing, for example “well, I do if they are on offer 2 for 1 or if it’s for the kids”.

Using Metaphors and Clean Language

Respond with clean questions that reflect their own language, like this.

  • Respondent
    “I really like the way the way the cooking instructions on the pack are laid out”
  • Moderator
    “You really like the way the cooking instructions on the pack are laid out?”
  • Respondent
    “Yes they make it look quite easy”
  • Moderator
    “They make it look quite easy? Easy like what?”
  • Respondent
    “Easy like I could really imagine myself cooking that for the kids. Maybe they could even do it themselves, yes that would be good.”
  • Moderator
    “You say that would be good, good like what?”
  • Respondent
    “Good like learning to cook so they can look after themselves when they leave home. Perhaps they could have other products in the range that teenagers would like such as…………”

Asking respondents to liken their feelings about a product, pack, concept or service to something else that is part of their everyday experience such as a TV character enables them to engage more deeply with the research and imagine how it will fit into their own life.

To summarise, we have a huge amount to cover in a short time, our respondents are our data source on which clients will ultimately, albeit via our interpretation and analysis, make very important decisions. We owe it to our clients to apply whatever tools and techniques we have in our armoury to create a trusting and effective group experience in which to develop and explore our brief.