Focused Conversation

Focused conversation is a technique of deliberation meant to replicate the ‘natural’ thought process used to reflect on and address an issue.

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Problems and Purpose

Focussed conversation is a technique of deliberation described most fully by Laura Spencer in her 1989 book Winning Through Participation. With theoretical underpinnings in Chris Argyris' concept of the ladder of inference and David Kolb's models of individual experiential learning and team learning cycle, this technique is meant to replicate the ‘natural’ thought process used to reflect on and address an issue. 

This technique is often used within a larger methodological framework or in conjunction with other discussion techniques as its focus is on reflecting on prior events before coming to a conclusion. For example, a Citizens' Jury may be presented with the facts of a case or may have a Q&A session with a panel before embarking on focused conversations. 

Origins and Development

The theoretical underpinnings of this technique can be traced back to the 1970s with Chris Argyris’ concept of ‘the ladder of inference’. It’s development also owes much to David Kolb’s work on educational theory, especially his ‘Experiential Learning Model’ and the idea of the team learning cycle. 

How it Works

Participant selection varies according to the overal project needs but, for each focused conversation group, it is ideal to have 10 (or less) participants. 

Stage 1 – Objective

Purpose: uncover the surface facts of the case based on directly observable data

For the practitioner: Think about your rational objective for the conversation. What do you want the group to learn as the result of the conversation?

Typical questions:

  • What did you see, hear, feel, smell, taste?
  • What did you hear people say?
  • Which objects, cards, ... attract your attention?

Stage 2 – Reflection

Purpose: to access "gut level" responses, associations, emotions, images

For the practitioner: Clarify your experiential aim for the conversation. What do you want the group to feel as the result of the conversation?

Typical questions:

  • What is it about the data that angers, excites, intrigues, surprises, ... you?
  • What internal images are triggered by the data?
  • What does this [situation, experience, ...] remind you of?

Stage 3 – Interpretive

Purpose: to make sense of the situation by articulating the meaning, values, significance, purpose, implications

For the practitioner: brainstorm questions you might ask about the experience or event without regard to the reflective thinking level of the question.

Questions should highlight the layers of meaning and purpose, for example:

  • What significance do you attach to the situation?
  • What storyline are we living out?

Stage 4 – Decisional

Purpose: to make future resolutions

For the practitioner: sort questions by level and cull them to a short list of not more than 10. As you shortlist, recall your rational and experiential aims. Make sure questions are specific but open-ended; avoid yes-no answers.

Questions should allow people to articulate their relationship and response(s) to the situation, for example:

  • How shall we respond to ...? 
  • The next time we are confronted with ..., how could/should we behave differently?

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Want to contribute an analysis of this tool/technique? Help us complete this section! 

See Also


External Links

The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools 


This article was summarized from Ken Brown's article on "Focused Conversation" available on the Lakehead University website:

Lead Image: Focused Conversation/ORID

Secondary Image: Focused Conversation Method