Session Design

Focused Conversation Method

Reflecting as a group on an Advocacy Plan serves the group in several ways: it works to solidify learnings as you revisit and make amendments to your plans, it helps the group identify what is working and what isn’t working, and it often improves morale. As such, we recommend incorporating reflections into every group meeting or discussion you have with respect to your advocacy work. It should only take 10-15 minutes.

The Focused Conversation Method is a group reflection technique developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Canada. The process begins with very concrete, easy questions that successively delve deeper into the work at hand. It maintains focus, prevents circular discussions, deepens analysis and assists group decision-making.


Objective level thinking is about the facts. This is where we ask questions about background information, sensory impressions, and other observable data. Some example questions include:

  • What do you see/hear/touch/smell/taste?
  • What words or phrases catch your attention?
  • When did it happen/who was there/what did people say?


Reflective level thinking focuses on the reactions to the objective level thinking. We want to find out more about personal reactions, associations, emotions, and images. Some example questions include:

  • What images come to mind?
  • What associations do you have with this/what does this remind you of?
  • What excites/frustrates you?
  • What impact is this situation having on you?


Interpretive level thinking tries to make sense of our reactions and associations. We work to uncover meaning, values, significance, purpose, and implications. Some example questions include:

  • Why was this important to you?
  • What trends do you see emerging?
  • What seems to be missing?


Decisional level thinking brings the conversation to a resolution. We decide on actions, future directions, and next steps. Some example questions include:

  • What change is needed?
  • What is our consensus?
  • What are we committed to do?


Rules for ideation

Here are classic rules for creating a safe idea environment for ideation. It's important to keep these top of mind when generating ideas—you may even want to post them someone visible to the group.

  • Don’t judge
  • Wild ideas are great!
  • Always build, never pull down
  • What was the task again? Stay focused
  • Draw!
  • Don’t talk over each other
  • So many ideas, go for quantity

Generating ideas is the foundation of innovation. This is a team sport. You’ll need markers and lots of sticky notes. Give yourselves 20 minutes.

  1. Always start solo. Announce the topic. Before any discussion, give everyone in the group 3 minutes to write their first ideas down on sticky notes. Aim for as many ideas as possible.
  2. Ask everyone to choose their favourite 3-5 ideas to share. This will preserve a diversity of perspectives.
  3. One person at a time, read an idea aloud and post it to the wall. Listen carefully to be sure you understand but don’t criticize or vote on anything. If you hear an idea that duplicates one of your favourites, discard your sticky note and promote another idea from your personal stack.

Ideation is all about uncritically, collaboratively generating lots of ideas. There are no wrong answers at this stage. You’ll sort the wheat from the chaff later with other methods. The goal is to develop a pool of 30 to 50 ideas. Depending on the size and diversity of your group, you may get there purely through solo ideation. If you have nearly enough ideas already, you can ask everyone to contribute one more favourite idea, and declare victory. However, if you have more time to invest, your group is primed to produce more and bolder ideas by collaborating.

  1. Appoint a scribe to take notes.
  2. For 15 minutes, discuss the ideas and how you might combine and/or extend some of them to produce new ideas. “What that made me think of was...” “What if we also...” “If we put these together, we could...” The scribe will add the new ideas to the wall.
  3. Finally, give everyone in the group another 2 minutes to work solo again. You probably each had an idea or two you didn’t get to contribute during the collaborative round. Add them to the wall.


Clustering is a quick, easy way to organize data. In the process, you will intuitively, collaboratively spotlight relationships amongst your ideas.
This is usually a team sport. You will need a stack of 30 to 50 ideas produced using the Ideation Card, some markers and some more sticky notes. Give yourselves 60 minutes.

  1. Grab a handful of 10 to 15 ideas and read each one aloud. Post them up, discuss any that you don’t understand, and eliminate duplicates.
  2. Begin identifying pairs of similar or related ideas. Stick these paired ideas side-by-side on the wall. Find as many pairs as you can. Once you’ve got a few pairs started, you can also add ideas to existing pairs. Now you’ve got “clusters”.
  3. Grab another handful of ideas, read aloud, eliminate duplicates, and begin to post them up. Repeat this process of introducing new ideas into the mix and then adding to or making new clusters, until all ideas have been clustered.
  4. Feel free to reconsider and shuffle the clusters while you work. As a general rule, don’t let one cluster get too “full”—when a cluster contains more than 8-10 distinct ideas, it’s time to start asking if there is enough variation to break it into a couple smaller clusters.
  5. When finished, give each cluster a descriptive 3-5 word title.

Clustering is an intuitive, collaborative activity. Group members add value as much through how they sort and discuss the ideas as with the titles they assign. Relationships and meaning in the ideas, pairs and clusters emerge naturally through the process.

You will sometimes find that there is more than one way to assign ideas to clusters. You might ask “where does this idea add more?” to choose a cluster to place it in. Or, you might find that there are two different interpretations of the idea at hand, which is why it fits into multiple clusters. Give each interpretation its own sticky note and add those to clusters. The process has revealed that, in the group’s best judgement, the difference matters. You’ll highlight it when you name the clusters.

Dot Vote

Sometimes you just need to decide. When you’ve got several ideas in play, it’s important to discuss how well each responds to the problem. But once everyone understands the possibilities, dot voting is a quick way to gauge which ideas have the most support.
This is a team sport. Your ideas are already posted on the wall for everyone to see, right? Grab some dot stickers. Give yourselves 10 minutes.

  1. Read each idea aloud and ask if anyone needs clarification.
  2. Give everyone three dot stickers. Just three! It’s important that everyone have fewer votes than there are ideas.
  3. Everyone dot votes for the ideas they prefer. Stick all your dots on one idea, or spread your votes around.

When you’ve finished, clusters of dots will highlight the ideas that have the most support.
If you’ve got a couple of ideas leading the pack, that’s great. They’ve both got lots of champions. Flip a coin or ask a participant chosen at random to break the tie. Dot voting is especially handy when you have an embarrassment of riches: too many useful ideas to choose from. Instead of
being paralyzed by choice, dot vote to spotlight the ideas with champions and broad support.