A creative opener for discussion groups

Viz: a place with useful information for troubled and confused Britons. Though I have to admit I haven't read it in years.

Here’s a tip I’m happy to share with any other qual researchers reading this (and indeed anyone reading this, though others may not find it very useful). On my new project, which is a kind of qualitative segmentation exercise for a charity, we tried an opening exercise for a discussion group I hadn’t used before and which worked like a charm.

The project is unusual in that we are segmenting supporters of a charity, so our objective is really to understand what makes different supporters tick, at a pretty broad level.

The object of the opener was threefold: (1) to get the participants engaged in the group; (2) to reveal something of the personality of each participant by helping them offer a fresh insight on themselves; (3) to generate more insights on each person by enabling the others in the group to comment upon them in a supportive, non-threatening way. What we did:

  • chose about 20-30 abstract images from Google Images
  • printed them out and stuck them up on the wall(s) before the group started
  • after initial intros, we played the following game: each participant was asked to look at all the images on the wall and choose one that they felt a connection with, that said something about them. They were asked to say nothing and not reveal their choice.
  • we then took each participant one by one and asked the rest of the group to try and guess which image that person chose, based on their first impressions of them.
  • once the guesses were exhausted, the participant then revealed their actual image choice.
"So this takes me back to my great love of zebras and the time I went to jail for assaulting a clinical psychologist ..."

The images needed to be abstract so that the “literal” door was closed to them and they had no option but to find a secondary level of meaning in the image they chose. The images on the wall also made the room look pretty and stamped our creative identity onto an otherwise bland Holiday Inn meeting room.

What you get then are participants’ perceptions of each other – quite readily shared – and then a chance for people to challenge and “correct” what has been said about them. The game framework allowed people to venture guesses that told us about them and the person they were guessing about, without people feeling too uncomfortable.

In a mini-group of five, this took about 20 minutes or so. A luxury perhaps for most projects, but it meant we had a good feel for the personalities in the room quite early. We’d also got everyone strongly engaged in the session, which paid dividends later. Participants seemed to give each other respect and space to express themselves later in the group, I think partly because they had bonded over sharing their differences early on.

It was also an exercise in which participants could ease themselves into something creative without needing to show artistic skills – really everyone joined in more or less equally.

So, not for every project, but this brightened up a rainy night in Peterborough in December for us.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

3 thoughts on “A creative opener for discussion groups

    1. Thanks Simon. First time in ages I’ve been really thrilled with a new way to start a group – an experiment initially but I’ll be using it more.
      Enjoyed your well-written blog too, very interesting on Brooks, Earls etc.
      Just discovered a nice site today you might like if you don’t already know it: NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). I’ve put in a link in my Blogroll. Lots of big thinking on innovation and social change.


  1. I’ve forwarded the article to my team to discuss: we’ll try it and let you know how we get on.

    Thanks for the NESTA link. The 12 predictions piece is great food for thought.



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