Focused Conversation

In a Focused Conversation a facilitator asks questions to elicit responses that take the group from the surface of a topic to its depth (Stanfield 1997). The four-stage sequence of questions is meant to disrupt people's tendency to be selective in the data they deem relevant and jump to premature conclusions based on that selective data, what Ross (1994) calls jumping up the “ladder of inference.”

The sample script below follows the early activities in a course that introduces the Action Research cycles and epicycles framework. (... refers to omitted details about what has gone on in that particular course.)

Sample Script

You have quite a challenge before you for the rest of the semester... But I think you can be pleasantly surprised by looking at how much you have learned already through...
To do that, I'm going to lead you in a Focused Conversation. This is a series of questions that begin with concrete things you observed and move through feelings and associations, on to interpretations, and finally get to the overall implications. The idea is to avoid jumping to conclusions or holding on to preformed opinions; instead stay open to forming new conclusions on the basis of hearing everyone's responses to the earlier questions—and this includes your own responses. Try not to answer a question that has not yet been asked.
This Focused Conversation is not a conventional discussion. You do not directly address what someone has said before you, but contribute to a pool of responses and gain insight from listening to what others contribute. We want each person to be heard, so keep your answers to the questions short and pithy—even telegraphic. No speeches and no disputing particular speaker's contributions. Leave it to me to ask for clarification.
I'm not the instructor here, but a neutral facilitator, so do not look to me for endorsement of answers. Instead listen to what others say. Provided you are responding to the question that was asked, there are no wrong answers. There is insight in every answer.

Objective Questions = concrete things, actually observable by all
  • What are the main parts of the Action Research process?
  • What are useful tools in the Action Research process?

  • Reflective Questions = associations and feelings
  • What was relatively easy for you to do in the initial activities?
  • What felt difficult?
  • What similar experiences come to mind?

  • Interpretive Questions = meaning and significance
  • What skills and resources did you bring to the initial activities?
  • What skills and resources were you missing?
  • What issues need to be resolved?

  • Decisional questions = implications for the future [recorded on the board or on a flip chart]
  • What tasks do you plan to undertake this week?
  • What guidance will you seek?

  • Closing: I'm always impressed with what emerges when people combine their insights. I'll type up the notes and email them to you by tomorrow.
    But for now, let's close this conversation and call it a day.

    Ross, R. (1994). "Ladder of Inference." Pp. 242-246 in Senge, P., A. Kleiner, C. Roberts, R. Ross, and B. Smith. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York: Currency.
    Stanfield, R. Brian, ed. (1997). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs.