US diplomat Dr Richard Haass has extended his all-party talks beyond the subjects announced so far to tackle sectarian divisions, but still plans to produce conclusions by the end of the year.
He listed his official agenda as "dealing with parades, dealing with flags and emblems, dealing with the legacy of the past".
He added: "I expect also at times we will also be discussing the future, the challenge of dealing with the segregated nature of housing, schooling, and the like."
Dr Haass was speaking to an invited group of journalists on a conference call from New York ahead of the five-party talks he will chair on Tuesday.
The venue for the talks has been moved from Stormont Castle, where Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have their offices, to emphasise their independence.
Mr Haass took the opportunity to outline his programme.
Next week will be a get to know you session with one-to-one meetings with individual parties.
Dr Haass last worked in Northern Ireland in 2003 as special envoy for President George W Bush's.
On this occasion he has been invited by the First and Deputy First Minister, though his mission has been publicly supported by Joe Biden, the US Vice President, on behalf of the administration.
"I want to make sure that I have got a firm handle on the range of views, the intensity with which various groups are advocating certain views," he said.
He added that he would meet "with the leadership of the five parties of the Executive both individually but at the end of the trip collectively".
Asked about the degree of interest in Northern Ireland in the US he said: "For many Americans outside of the administration this is not a big topic."
He went on: "When I tell people what I have agreed to do here there is a little bit of surprise.
"A lot of people have reacted saying 'gee we thought that the situation in Northern Ireland was resolved'. The news of the violence over the last six to nine months comes as a surprise, to be honest, an unwelcome surprise at that."
However, he stressed the progress made in the 10 years since he was last despatched here as a US government envoy.
"I don't see this first set of meeting in September as a negotiating round or an attempt to bridge differences," Dr Haass said.
At the end of next week he will return to the US and come back here for a further round of talks in mid October.
By then he hopes that his team "move forward and to essentially try to narrow the differences and come up with consensus".
In the meantime they will accept written submissions from individuals and groups. They have also opened a website so people can post comments and ideas.
STORY SO FAR
Dr Richard Haass is a former US diplomat and Special Envoy to Northern Ireland who returns here on Tuesday to chair talks between the five parties who make up the Stormont Executive. His team includes Dr Meghan O Sullivan, another former diplomat who is now a professor at Harvard, and think-tank member Charles Landow. Their mission is to produce a report pointing the way forward on parading, the display of flags and emblems and how we deal with the legacy of the past. They have until the New Year to do so.