Friday, August 20, 2010

In the Rooms

Living History, 2004

Many recovering alcoholics, when asked where they derive the strength to see their way from day to day without a drink, refer to “the rooms.” They might refer to people they’d trust with their lives, but who they know by first name only, because they’re fellow travelers they’ve met “in the rooms.” That’s how much “the rooms” mean to them.

The “rooms” they’re referring to are all of the various places—church Sunday school rooms, school classrooms, community centers, office building break rooms, airport lounges, cruise ship staterooms and luxury hotel conference rooms—where meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous are held. Most of us don’t have reason to be conscious of these gatherings. But if you look around, you’ll find there are meetings taking place all through the day in all kinds of places near where you live and work.

In the course of my professional work, I’ve had a chance to visit a few of these rooms and get a sense of how what goes on there arms AA members to cope. The path to recovery may look simple to someone who doesn’t have a problem with alcohol. But it’s a long and tough slog for many of those who do. When a recovering drinker gets edgy, the rooms are where they find understanding company, honesty and reinforcement.

In the marketing research world, we have our own “rooms” where we try to create the same sense of openness, honesty and insightful exploration. In our case, they’re focus group rooms. Over the years I’ve conducted a few thousand focus groups. I’ve done them in about as many different kinds of places as where AA meetings are held. Most focus groups, though, are conducted in very plain meeting rooms specifically designed for that purpose.

Fieldwork O’Hare, 2005

Some of the same elements of the group therapy method of modern psychiatry that can be found in twelve-step programs are used in focus groups. Everyone sits around a table or in a more casual setting, preferably in a circle, where the can see each other and be on an equal footing. A skilled moderator leads them through a semi-structured conversation. You’d think people would be uneasy in such a setting. A few are. But you’d be amazed at what people tell you about themselves when all you’re really trying to find out is how they distinguish between the brand personalities of different banks, hospitals or hot dogs.

If I’ve learned anything from doing this kind of work, it’s that most people don’t have anyone who’ll sit and listen to them for a few hours, to give them the gift of unconditional acceptance, no matter how wise or cockamamie the words that come out of their mouths might be.

That doesn’t mean I like all the people I meet in focus groups. I have something of a specialty in dealing with what we in the trade refer to as “hostile audiences.” Dealing with these groups can be a challenge. But you know that going into it and can be prepared to use or defuse the hostility.

It’s the people you meet in the seemingly easy groups, though, that surprise you. Over the years I’ve met thousands of profoundly kind and decent people from just about every walk of life. But every now and then I run across people whose values and behavior are so repugnant that I felt like I have to take a shower after spending two hours in the same room with them.

Every now and then I get a chance to get out of the meeting room and interact with people in their own milieu. I met the couple shown above on a shuttle bus at Colonial Williamsburg. They have costumes there for youth visitors. But it’s a little unusual to find grown-up visitors in period costume. When I asked the couple about their dress, the explained that they are both “really, really into history” and are amassing over time, as their budget allows, a full authentic Colonial wardrobe that they can parlay into jobs as historic interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. To which I could only reply in my best researcher voice:

“That’s so interesting. Tell me more.”


  1. What a great post. I am not familiar with the term "in the rooms," but that's classic. I'll think of that in a lot of sessions I do this year on the road! It is so true that people will divulge amazing things to you when they don't even know you. I think it must be a common human need to have someone listen.

  2. ps
    Love the photo of this couple--they are just beaming.

  3. I participated in many focus groups when we were still living in VB and you're right about what some people will reveal, just because someone will listen to them. Somewhat sad, isn't it?

    I'm familiar with the other rooms as well. Thank God for friends of Bill! They quite literally saved the life of someone near and dear to me.