Focussed dialogue

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Focused dialogue is the collaborative construction of powerful ideas. These ideas are essentially simple, generic and fundamental concepts which, once developed between people, can serve to build the shared understanding essential for effective communication and successful integration.

Developing focused dialogue involves a number of discrete steps:

1. Identifying “the terms that will play a key role in the group’s discussions. These terms label concepts that are potential elements of a shared theoretical framework. This procedure can highlight differences and similarities in word-use.” Of particular interest are “nexus concepts”, which are common to a number of disciplines, but given different names in those disciplines, which can hide the fact that the concept is shared. Newell gives the example of ‘vicious circle’, ‘cumulative causation’, ‘bandwagon effect’, ‘schismogenesis’ and ‘positive feedback’ and in previous work a list of potential nexus concepts is provided to help initiate a group’s discussions (see: Newell, B., Crumley, C.L., Hassan, N., Lambin, E.F., Pahl-Wostl, C., Underdal, A., Wasson, R., (2005). A Conceptual Template for Integrative Human–Environment Research. Global Environmental Change. 15, 299–307).

2. Identifying and analysing the metaphors that individual group members use to understand each of the key terms. Analysis involves interrogating the metaphors and terms. The following questions are asked for each metaphor: “How simple/concrete is its source domain? Are all group members familiar with the source domain? Does the metaphor highlight appropriate aspects of the target domain? Does it provide a useful inferential logic for use in the target domain? How effective is the metaphor as a means of communication across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries? Is it expressed in a way that provides a clear, unambiguous definition of the corresponding term?” For each term ask: “Do the candidate metaphors for this term produce conflicting definitions? Which of the metaphors are the most powerful (simple yet generic)?”

3. Working together “to construct a shared conceptual framework that embodies the selected metaphors. This conceptual framework constitutes an a priori shared context for communication within the group.” The groups also tests “the usefulness of the framework as a foundation for research design and modelling.”

Finally these three steps are iterated to evolve the conceptual framework over time. The “conceptual framework in use at any specific time is limited and provisional”.

Reference: Newell, B. (2012). Simple Models, Powerful Ideas: Towards Effective Integrative Practice. Global Environmental Change, 22, 3: 776-783. Full text online at:

Posted: February 2012
Last modified: November 2019