I arrived at the recent AQR moderation course having moderated only a handful of focus groups previously. These had flown by in a blur of adrenaline and nerves, with a constant “did I ask that in the right way?” going round and round in my head.

I had assumed that the course would set this right by revealing a precise methodology and set of AQR guidelines, perhaps providing me with a further reading list. The reality, however, was both much more useful and much more exciting.

On day one, we started off by looking at what it means to moderate. The enthusiasm our course tutors had for moderating was compelling. They explained how moderating is like becoming a ‘curious child’: being open-minded, questioning everything and always looking out for the unexpected.

I hadn’t thought about moderating in this way before and it was inspiring to think about its wider aims, aside from ticking off all the questions in the discussion guide and making sure everyone knows where the toilets are. I realised how these housekeeping niceties, together with the discussion guide, really act as more of a springboard to enable us to delve deeper into people’s conscious and unconscious thoughts on the topic to hand.

On our second day, it was time to put these learnings into practice. We each took turns to moderate 15- minute sections of a focus group, with our peers playing the respondents and vice versa.

Each of the individual elements of this day proved useful, from moderating the group ourselves to watching how others moderated. One of the big surprises for me was how much I gained from experiencing a focus group in the respondent’s chair. In this guise I quickly found myself turning into what I would characterise as a ‘challenging’ respondent. I interrupted, I went off topic, I became overly negative, and the rest of the time I just didn’t make very much sense. Basically, I realised that my job is in fact quite difficult.

I also started to realise just how much of an impact I, as a moderator, could have in all this. I felt a genuine sense of annoyance when a moderator didn’t look in my direction or was slightly turned away from me. But when our moderators used the ‘power of silence’ questioning technique we had learnt about the previous day, I felt that I had a chance to explore my feelings on the topic and prepare a relatively comprehensible answer.

I left the course with a clearer understanding of what my role as a moderator involved and a wealth of new techniques and ideas. Most importantly, I was encouraged by the obvious enthusiasm our tutors shared for moderation. This, in turn, inspired me and I’m excited to continue along my moderating journey.