By Dr. Sharon Livingston

You know Murphy’s Law – the idea that whatever can happen, will. Well Murphy’s Law struck again. Literally!

I was on a plane leaving Chicago Wednesday morning. My fourteen pound computer was on my lap. (Don’t ask me why I have such a heavy laptop. Pretty ridiculous I know. And it’s a new model too. Gives me a little extra exercise I guess.) Anyway, Dennis, our very pleasant flight attendant told me he would have to stow it overhead for take off, but would give it back to me once we were allowed to use electronic equipment again. About 20 minutes into the flight, I caught his eye and asked if this would be a good time to get my computer.


“No problem,” he smiled. Famous last words!

Dennis opened the compartment, grasped the computer and... proceeded to drop it on my head. OUCH!!! I saw stars and heard Tweetie birds singing. It crashed onto the top of my head and then veered off to my left hand on it’s way down to my sandaled foot. People around me lurched in their seats. Dennis ran for an ice pack. It hurt. Mini concussion? Please, no, I have to write up a top line of the study I just completed. Getting off the plane at La Guardia, I found myself somewhat dazed and foggy for the next several hours.

It’s a few days later. I’ve been to the doctor and have been reassured I’ll be fine. It’s pretty amazing to me that I went through that trauma with virtually no residual effect once my neck was adjusted in the doctors office. The shock passed through my body. My thinking refocused. With a neck adjustment and a little rest, I was fine the next morning.

It was interesting to observe the reactions of the passengers around me in the plane after the jolt of the mini crisis was over. Everyone kept looking up as if another computer would suddenly take wing, fly out of the overhead and crash down on them. They laughed nervously about it, made jokes, but also kept a watchful eye on the overhead compartments, taking time and attention away from working, reading a book or just relaxing.

Murphy attended to the highly unlikely. I’ve been flying for twenty years and have never before seen anyone accosted by a Kamikaze computer or any other item from the overhead. Nevertheless, the passengers on the plane had become aware of the possibility that such an event could happen and were therefore on heightened alert, anxious that they seemed to have no safeguard in place.

This incredibly rare experience, which left me feeling like the sky might actually be falling for the rest of the day, reminded me of how we group leaders and moderators sometimes fear an outburst of Murphy’s Law in our group sessions and need to have precautions in place in the unlikely event that the respondent from Hell (“Super Grumpy”)happens to show up on one of our projects.

In our Sharpen The Focus Institute training classes, people tell us that they most dread the possibility of an encounter with an attacking respondent who shows up without warning. While he is probably not likely to appear very frequently, the most feared respondent is the transformed “Incredible Hulk” who threatens to destroy group process by explosively regurgitating his intense relevant or irrelevant rage at the leader and all over the group.

(Yes – I’m mixing metaphors … Super Grumpy + Incredible Hulk … but I’m doing it on purpose … you’ll see why.)

It could happen. It’s unlikely to happen. In my own 6,000+ focus groups it has happened maybe 10 times. However, the unpleasant experience and idea that this wildly uncontrollable character can sabotage the group, the study and the image of the moderator to his/her client, leaves a leader looking up at the overhead, wondering when a respondent’s accidental or purposeful aggression might erupt in the session and land on his head. A little stage fright is energizing and keeps us on our toes. On the other hand, fear of unpredictable aggression without techniques for dealing with it detracts from our ability to perform at our best.

Let’s think about the Incredible Hulk for a minute. This is a basically good guy who is transformed by an impulsive temper into a giant muscle bound monster of fury. I’m going to digress just a bit to tell his story.

The Tormented Tale of the Mortal who came to be known as the Hulk:

Picture this. It’s a dark moonless night in Dayton Ohio. The beautiful, sweet Rebecca, soon to be mother of Bruce Banner, is swept off her feet by the charismatic and brilliant but wildly psychotic, Dr. Brian Banner who seduces her with his intense eyes and momentary passion. Dr. Banner is an alcoholic father who hates the unfortunate, innocent little Brucie. He is madly jealous of his son’s relationship with his mother. Brian Banner accused Bruce of being evil and a monster that was a threat to mankind even though he was a small child. Years of frustration began to build an irrepressible tension in the young Bruce.

Father Banner finally murdered his wife when she attempted to leave with Bruce. Orphaned Bruce was raised by his maternal aunt and later attended Science High School. He diverted his frustration, grief, hurt and anger into his study of science.

Bruce Banner became a highly withdrawn intellectual as an attempt to manage his difficulty coping with emotions. He did succeed in getting his doctorate in nuclear physics and went to work at a nuclear research facility. There in a heroic effort to rescue a friend and coworker, he was caught in the heart of a nuclear explosion.

The rest is legendary. Banner was transformed into seven feet, one thousand pounds of unfettered fury - the most powerful creature to walk the earth.

The transformation was triggered by the build up of intense feelings and stress. When his anger was physically expressed and released during his Hulk conversion he would then transform back to his normal easier to be reckoned with form. However, this was only after reeking havoc around him, scaring the living daylight out of everyone in sight and knocking off a few people who got him PO’d.

Ahhh, poor Bruce. (I guess now I’m going to have to go see the movie.)

The point of moving from the Super Grumpy metaphor (anyone unfamiliar with my theory that respondents in a focus group tend to assume the role of one of the seven dwarfs from the classic 1800’s tale can visit Snow White Test) to the Incredible Hulk is ... we can all EMPATHIZE with the Incredible Hulk … we generally do NOT empathize with Grumpy (or Super Grumpy).

Strange as it may seem, the best way to deal with an overly aggressive, ‘in-your-face’ respondent is to dig deep inside yourself to find empathy for their feelings.

This is, of course, very easy to say, and quite another thing to accomplish – so lets review the options. (Note: It’s MUCH more complicated than saying “I feel your pain, brother!” … I mean, the 1960s were over a long time ago!)

Recently, I heard about a technique for helping leaders feel more centered in themselves and distance their emotional reaction from expressed aggression in a group. The speaker presented an analogy for observing while simultaneously leading, where one could take an emotional step back from involvement in the group. The metaphor was to imagine that your watching a movie; that the story was unfolding before your eyes and you could watch and think about the characters and the plot and the implications from a slightly removed vantage point and thereby spare yourself the stress and high emotions that can distort our perceptions of the findings as well as jeopardize our ability to lead.

This is excellent advice for the observers in the backroom. As we’ve all experienced, it’s often difficult for clients to hear negative and emotionally charged feedback about their brain children. And, who could blame them? Their jobs are on the line. Their self esteem about their own creative process which brought the test ideas into being are being challenged and shot down in a moment, while they may have spent months or even years coming to the point where they are brave enough to expose them to their audiences. It’s natural that clients are likely to take any attacks on their products and advertising personally making it difficult to listen with an open mind.

It is therefore a wise idea for clients to have the safety of the movie metaphor. And it works well with the focus group set up. Watching the “movie” through the glass is a logical extension of the physical environment.

The window is like a large screen. The seats are lined up in tiers. It’s dark like a movie theatre. Many facilities even serve popcorn to encourage the sense of more passive viewing and listening.

However, it’s a totally different situation in the front room as the leader. The moderator might pretend that she/he is the focusing lens of the camera, but... The problem occurs when the monster in the movie slowly turns its head, catches the camera’s eye and focuses his fury right into the audiences face. We all know how frightening that is when that character seems to come off the big screen and become aware of you as viewer.

Our safe seat in the auditorium is now confronted by the scary beast. An icy chill streaks up our spine. Our hearts begin to race. Our eyes widen. Some will utter a frightened, HUH!! If the change in the monsters demeanor and attention comes out of the blue, the intensity of our reactions is greater.

Imagine how much worse that is when an angry respondent captures the moderator’s eye and blasts him/her with a tirade of emotion intended for the brand, the manufacturer, his father/mother, or anyone else who has made them angry. While we can sit safely in the movie theatre just having our momentary feeling of fright, in the moderator’s seat we must have strategies in place for dealing with these people.

Art Shulman, a friend of ours who has attended our training and learned about our Snow White Theory for dealing with the various types of characters in the group, wrote a comic tongue-in-cheek account of his version of The Hulk appearing in one of his sessions.

Here’s a synopsis and a small excerpt: (Please see for the whole article - he’s really hilarious in his presentation!)

* * *

Apparently, an already transformed, surly, Hulk-like look-a-like known as “Beast” presented himself in one of Art’s groups (or perhaps hypothetical groups). In the go round he growled and snarled at the group and at Art.

Art, silently, but frantically tried to recall all of the interventions he had learned to employ in dealing with difficult people. He jokingly reflects to himself things like:

- Slip him a Mickey? 
- Pull out a can of Mace? 
- Use the ejector seat?

Then he tells us that he remembered the seating position behavior he learned about in our Sharpen the Focus Institute moderator training class and our Snow White theory about working with difficult respondents. He invites Beast, aka Super-Grumpy to switch seats with Happy who is sitting to the Moderator’s right. He correctly explains that the chair opposite the leader is likely to be taken by a confrontational character. One way to change behavior is to literally change the person’s seat.

In Art’s Focus Group Thriller, he has Super-Grumpy switch his seat with Happy, the character most likely to support the moderator.

Then Art announced to the group that the topic of the session was Christmas stockings, where upon our Grumpy Hulk uttered a thunderous rumble sound like that of a volcano about to erupt, turned to him and the people in the backroom, and in growing ferocity picked up a chair and flung it at the mirror.

Once our imaginary respondent, Beast, released the pent up frustration that had been growing to a breaking point, he was able to express the softer feelings and reasons why. In Art’s words:

“Then, as we all looked on, Beast sat back down and became tearful,. .Every December I apply for jobs as Santa Claus. But I’m always rejected once they find out I’m a professional wrestler...“

For the rest of the session he was a pussycat, making all sorts of useful suggestions to increase sales of my client’s product“

* * *

With just a little luck, nothing this extreme will ever happen to you when you’re leading a group or meeting. Yet there is that nagging old Murphy reminding us that anything can and will. The sheer knowledge of this possibility, no matter how rare, keeps us needing to have an approach to handle the most difficult respondents even though most groups are comprised of amiable, cooperative people.

An intervention for your consideration:

I would like to suggest a little tactic to have in your back pocket that you can rely on if Murphy and The Hulk show up and scare you with a roar and the mighty muscle that looks like he can back it up.

It is a very simple technique that diffuses the raw emotion of this grumpy person. See Grumpy Dwarf Profile for more on this interesting character. And remember, all of us have the capacity for being quite grumpy at times, when provoked.

The unexpected outburst starts. Allow the respondent to vent and finish his/her little tirade. You will be feeling the attack and so will the rest of the group. If you are like most people when confronted with such a strong assault your heart is racing and you probably feel a little frightened yourself not unlike the shock I felt when the computer came crashing down on my head out of seemingly nowhere.

Remind yourself to take a breath. It will be over soon.

You can give yourself time to think and recover from your pounding heart and dazed feeling AND at the same time, help this angry person calm down by saying:

"I am sorry could you repeat that...I am not sure I really understood what you said."

This is at the same time both an extraordinarily simple AND extraordinarily powerful intervention. Here’s why:

- It protects you from attempting to engage in a rational conversation with an irrational person (which is kind of like trying to get your dog to teach you Calculus … you’ll just irritate him and get him to bark louder). Your job as moderator is to keep the group communication constructive, reasonably logical (despite the need to elicit emotional motivation) and goal oriented. The overly aggressive respondent is not able to contribute to this in their initial state of anger.

- Second, the meaning and intent of the overly aggressive respondent’s communication is usually quite clouded by the intensity of his adrenalin. It’s hard to decipher the marketing implications out from underneath the intensity of his emotional state.

The tone of your voice should communicate genuine interest in hearing the meaning of his/her words. You are asking so that you can help this person better articulate what they are thinking. Like the Hulk who requires a build up of energy to fuel his fiery temper, his raw emotion has been spent. It will take time, energy and a sense of annoyance and irritation to rebuild another volcanic eruption.

When the respondent repeats what was originally spat out in a rage, he/she will now express it far more calmly with far less feeling and agitation. This will give you an opportunity to:

* Recuperate, calm down, collect your thoughts and think of your next question

* Invite the group to react to the content of his message rather than the inappropriate emotion.

Then, in order to further help the “Super-Grumpy” respond in a way which will help him be more cooperative, ask easy questions with regard to the content. Examples would be:

- When did this happen? 
- Where were you? 
- How did you get there? 
- Who was there?

People calm down when given the opportunity to answer simple factual question which have definite answers, having nothing to do with their opinions. (The reason is, opinions are things which reside INSIDE a person’s head ... they are things one has to ‘defend’, whereas facts are things that are usually more objectively verifiable, thus carrying less of a need for personal defense).

In contrast, asking a very upset person “why?” (which they may or may not know the answer to, and which certainly puts them on the spot to defend their position) may create more anxiety and refuel their upset.

You should also, (at some point after the problem respondent has re-verbalized their aggression and been helped to calm down with these simple factual questions), acknowledge the problem or concern he has, then repeat it to the person to make sure you (and the rest of the group) understands the issue.

What works about this approach?

  • You demonstrated that you have respect for this respondent [as well as the others in the group] by accepting his reaction and wanting to hear more.

  • You remained apparently calm and avoided counter attacking and dismissing him. (That’s hard to do when someone is attacking you. During an aggressive confrontation, it’s natural to want to fight fire with fire.)

  • You indicated interest in finding out what he is really thinking and validated him by letting him know that you believe there is an important message beyond the fireworks.

  • You treated the issue as important to the respondent, even though it might not be so for others, showing your interest in everyone’s reaction.

  • You demonstrated acceptance of his feelings to make it possible for him to talk without having to use intense emotional outbursts to get your attention.

  • You used the window of calm after the storm to reestablish your leadership in the group and take control

  • At the same time, you gave the other group members a moment to catch their breath too and calm down from the onslaught so you could all return to the task at hand.

Art was right about seating position. It’s much easier for an angry respondent to assert dominance and attempt to steal the floor if they can make eye contact with the leader. Acknowledging via eye contact invites the other to talk and interact. [You know how they say to avoid eye contact with a crazy looking person when you’re walking the streets of Manhattan.] So change the balance of power by getting up, moving around the room and making it difficult for him/her to look you in the eye until this person has demonstrated that she/he can be cooperative.

When all else fails, from another fairy tale, keep a pitcher of water handy to melt the wicked witch. [Just kidding of course, but it’s only fair to note that Super-Grumpies come in both genders].

And remember, Murphy’s law is very unlikely to come to pass. Most groups are comprised of people who want to be there and share their ideas rather than hitting you on the head with a heavy metal black box.

Maybe Dennis the flight attendant was the Incredible Hulk?

Wishing you great groups!

Contact Information

Phone: 646-600-6566

email: The Livingston Group for Marketing

The Livingston Group for Marketing, Inc.
347 W 57th St., Suite 25C, NY, NY 10019

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