What can be learned from the need for ORID Focused Conversations and for attention to the ladder of inference?

In Focused Conversations (Stanfield 1997, Nelson 2001) a group, which could be a class, a grass roots activist organization, or a business, addresses some challenging or difficult situation by proceeding through four stages:

  • 1. Objective (getting the concrete facts, things observable by all)
  • 2. Reflective (eliciting feelings and associations)
  • 3. Interpretive (considering the meaning and significance)
  • 4. Decisional (formulating a decision or an action)

Participants who jump quickly to a decision or interpretation are encouraged to spend more time on the earlier stages, to be careful to separate facts from feelings, and to recognize at each step the different assessments of other participants.  In short, ORID takes a group up the “ladder of inference” not only systematically but also in one direction, that is, not selecting or emphasizing the facts and feelings that support the interpretation or decision you had already made.

The need for the Focused Conversation process opens up some challenging questions.  (Readers of this post are welcome to point to answers they have found to any of the questions, or to relevant experiences.)

  • A. Why is there a pervasive tendency to move quickly up the ladder of inference and then select/emphasize facts/feelings that fit your interpretations or decisions?  Answering this question makes it possible to address:
  • B. What tactics can one expect people to use to thwart the ORID process and protect their quick move up the ladder and selection/emphasis of facts/feelings?
  • C. What forms of teaching can best counter the tendency (A) and the thwarting (B)?  (Experiencing ORID in practice might help, but this cannot be a sufficient answer given it assumes that the person or group is prepared to fully engage in an ORID.)
  • D. What structures (norms, rules, procedures, group routines, etc.) should be established to support ORIDing and to reduce the tendency (A) and the thwarting (B)?

It seems possible that investigation of A might lead to considering discussions of personality types (e.g, Grid-Group).  Looking at how our institutions bolster inflexibility in these personalities might provide insight about D.


Nelson, J. (2001). The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools. Toronto, Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Stanfield, B. (Ed.) (1997). The Art of Focused Conversation. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

3 Responses to What can be learned from the need for ORID Focused Conversations and for attention to the ladder of inference?

  1. John Miller says:

    cool. thanks for posting it. where do you want to explore these rather large questions? consider here? http://www.facebook.com/pages/ICA-Associates-Inc/172402089443721

  2. I’m hoping that people will respond to the questions as comments to this blog post. (Eventually we can collate comments and post a link to the ICA associates page [once someone shows me how to do that]). Thanks,

  3. David Weinberger in his 2002 book on the internet, “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” claims that “When we make a tough decision, often it’s tough because we have too much information and it isn’t all consistent… Making a decision means deciding which of these “inputs” to value and how to fit them together to make a coherent story. In fact, the story helps determine which of the inputs to trust by providing a context in which the inputs make sense. That means the causality runs backwards: the inputs don’t determine the decision; the decision determines which of the inputs will count as influences.” ORID, then, tries to run against the fact that, faced with inconsistency, humans are story tellers. Question: Could story-telling be based on ORID?

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