The topic might be immersion, it may be a customer interview, or facilitating a group workshop session. Having done literally hundreds of these over the course of my career I’ve carved out a framework for this that I think works very well.
Break the ice
Ask a seemingly off topic question serves no other purpose than to introduce everyone in the room, be it two or twelve people. It seems obvious, but this is a lot harder than it seems. I’ve found the ability to just interact with people outside of consultant mode is invaluable to setting the tone of their interaction with you. My wife is an absolute pro at this step and I’ve seen how successful this is if you do nothing else. I’m not talking about the marketing focus group connection either, do some research on the group and ask them about some things that really matter to them.
When you’re ready to jump in, start wide: “tell me about why you’re in business?” The answer may seem obvious, but forcing a group to respond one-by-one has done wonders for me. First, if there are unspoken assumptions about what they offer, those are immediately brought to bare. Second, you would be surprised just how many people who have been in business for years struggle to answer this question. If that’s the case, you’ve found the heart of the communication issue in very short order.
Go specific early
Ask about a very specific pain point within the business, or within the customer / brand relationship. Again, forcing the issue leads to uncovering a lot. Forcing both sides to self-diagnose early brings out a lot of deep seated issues in the relationship very quickly.
Get them talking and get out of the way
Too many people are fixated on the script. The most important thing is to get people talking, don’t get in the way of organic conversation, that’s the most valuable interaction throughout the process. It not only serves to reveal unanticipated insights, but giving a conversational tone to the relationship from the start will enhance your ability to get honest, insightful feedback.
Listen above all
Don’t let note taking and documentation get in the way of really listening and reading between the lines. If it’s that big of a concern, record sessions with permission of your subjects.
Don’t force the issue
I’ve been in several of these where for whatever reason (there are many) it’s just not a fruitful conversation. Pull the plug if needed. If twenty minutes of conversation isn’t going anywhere don’t be afraid to shut it down. There are other ways. At times going this route has forced people to take the process seriously.