The World Cafe refers to both a vision and a method of dialogue. It evolved out of conversations and experimentation one evening at the home of consultants Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.
Juanita Brown describes the vision:
We are not powerless to make a difference to the future of our families, our communities, our organizations, and our world. We have always brought forth the future through webs of personal commitments born through human conversation. By choosing to focus on questions worth asking we are changing the conversation. As we change the conversation, we are beginning to change our common future.
Through mutual listening and a spirit of discovery, a certain type of magic appears -- the magic of a new collective intelligence arising from the individual minds present in the conversation. Reaching out in ever widening circles, participants of such conversations are experiencing the magic pollinating larger constituencies, carrying the seed ideas for new conversations, creative possibilities and collective action. This generative source of collective intelligence, of collective awareness, of our capacity for 'knowing together' is our lifenet -- a fertile field of unforeseen possibilities emerging in courageous conversation, from which new futures are born and new worlds brought into being.
Our local conversations are connected and linked to others occurring in many simultaneous places. All these conversations and our awareness of their connectedness constitute The World Cafe. And all over the world the lifenet and the magic serve as the fertile soil which nourish conversations at local tables in The World Cafe.
The process of The World Cafe -- the thing that happens at those "local tables" -- mimics the larger global dance of interlinking conversations, of which it is a part. Although it has many variations, the core process goes something like this (compiled from an email from Nancy Margulies, another co-creator of The World Cafe):
In February 1998 an Australian associate of Robert Theobald,
Alan Stewart in Adelaide, sent me a document about work being
done in the Bay Area which I didn't even know about. This was
the "World Cafe" correspondence reprinted below. A major
innovator of this is Juanita
Brown of Marin Co. -- Tom
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
I have good connections in the Bay Area now. One is with a woman called Juanita
Brown, who, with her husband David Isaacs and a friend, Nancy Margulies
from St Louis [now in the SF area - tom], have co-created something called 'World Cafe.' It's
essentially about creating contexts in which conversation can occur
'naturally.' IMO it's very potent.
>From Juanita Brown:
"... human conversation had always been the crucible for social
invention--the birthing place of new ideas, new ways of being and new ways of
doing. Circles of small groups genuinely concerned about questions that
mattered to their common future have for centuries been the locus of social
and institutional renewal.
From circles of elders around ancient campfires, to the sewing circles and
"committees of correspondence" that birthed the American Republic, to the
conversations in the Cafes and salons that spawned the French Revolution,
people have always gathered for real conversation about questions that
matter. From the "study circles" which contributed to the economic and
social renaissance in Sweden in the early 1900's to the "quality circles"
that revitalized Japanese business and industry nearly half a century later,
we can see the same deep pattern and core processes of human organizing at play.
Small groups exploring common questions and learning that others are doing
the same, has always been the locus for large scale transformative change.
Margaret Mead, who studied social systems and cultural change all over the
globe, remarked, "Never doubt that small groups of committed people can
change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."
In those times and places where innovation is born other simple conditions
are also present. In addition to a question that really matter and the space
and time to explore it, mutual listening and a spirit of discovery infuse the
conversations. A certain type of "magic" appears--the magic of a new
collective intelligence arising from the individual minds present in the
conversation. The wisdom needed to address the concerns of any group is
already "in the middle of the circle" waiting to be tapped. No one knows
exactly how to describe that "magic", yet people know when it was present.
Reaching out in ever widening circles, members and leaders of these small
groups are experiencing the "magic" pollinating larger constituencies,
carrying the seed ideas for new conversations, creative possibilities and
collective action. The ideas are alive and serve as a sort of invisible DNA
that carries the collective intelligence required for social co-evolution.
This generative source of collective intelligence, of collective awareness,
of our capacity for "knowing together" is our "lifenet".
From this "lifenet", this fertile field of unforeseen possibilities emerging
in courageous conversation, new futures are born and new worlds brought into
being. And those who see these possibilities are helping others to see that
they are not alone--that our local conversations are connected and linked to
others occurring in many simultaneous places.
All these conversations and our awareness of their connectedness of
constitutes "The World Cafe". And all over the world the "lifenet" and the
"magic" serve as the fertile soil which nourish conversations at local tables
in The World Cafe.
These webs of conversations and the action commitments that naturally arise
from them can serve as the energy generator, the amplifier, the core unit of
change force for co-evolving the future in any system.
As we become more aware of this pattern of relationships and the core life
processes of which they were a part people are asking, "Could there be a
* Could there be a simpler way for us to move beyond the devastation that
seemed to be facing our species?
* Could we have already at hand the essential processes and the tools for
nurturing the collective intelligence and wisdom needed support generative
learning and large-scale renewal?
* Could we imagine the possibility that as a species we already have access
to the resources required for realizing our best hopes?
* Could it be so natural and so obvious that we just haven't seen it?
* Could it be that as we cross the threshold into the 21st century we
finally remember what has been nature's strategic planning process all
* Could this natural process of shared meaning-making and social learning
embody the deeper ecology of strategy that institutional leaders in all
sectors of society have been seeking?
* Has The World Cafe been in business for centuries and we are just now
We can participate in The World Cafe any time we chose to nurture our
relationships with others and to focus our attention on the connected web of
questions, conversations and commitments emerging among us. Only a few
conditions are needed to nurture large-scale renewal. Leaders and members
can place their collective attention and intention on:
* questions worth asking
* hospitable places and shared spaces to explore them
* care-full listening
* a spirit of discovery
For The World Cafe to operate well, it was important to have at least one
"host" who encourages making connections between the conversations at
individual cafe tables and the larger conversations around common questions
occurring at other Cafe's.
The seed idea of The World Cafe has begun to spread. We recognize that we
are not powerless to make a difference to the future of our families, our
communities, our organizations, and our world. We have always brought forth
the future through webs of personal commitments born through human
conversation. By choosing to focus on questions worth asking we are changing
the conversation. As we change the conversation, we are beginning to change
our common future.
Together as a human family we know that it had always been so. We know that
our choices make a difference. Questions worth asking, courageous
conversation, caring community and committed action are becoming central to
our lives. Through our own local efforts to create life-affirming futures, we
are drawing from and contributing to the collective intelligence and wisdom
being generated in the ever expanding circles of conversation taking place
at The World Cafe. We have finally come home. We are creating a revolution
of hope and a legacy of learning that will nourish the lives of our
grandchildren and of generations as yet unborn.
>from Nancy Margulies:
"World Cafe" is a concept that evolved out of conversations and
experimentation one evening at the home of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.
Since that evening, many of us have been creating "Cafe" experiences in order
to foster conversation about questions that matter. World Cafe involves
creating an environment that feels like a Cafe, or a tavern, a porch swing, a
kitchen table -- a place where people feel invited to talk in small intimate
groups about topics of interest and about possibilities.
In order to create a cafe you need small tables, (ones that accommodate four
or five people), chairs, large sheets of paper for tablecloths along with
flowers and candles and marking pens for each table.
Entering the cafe, participants hear music and perhaps see a welcoming sign.
The host or hostess of the Cafe welcomes everyone and invites them to find a
seat at one of the tables. (For this paper I will alternately use the words
hostess and host). She then suggests the topic for the Cafe, which might be
simply a question or statement, and then explains that after a set period of
time (usually 30-45 minutes) people will be asked to bring the conversation
to a close and move to new tables.
As people talk at their tables they are encouraged to record ideas, insights
and questions that emerge by writing them on the paper tablecloth.
After thirty or forty minutes the hostess asks for everyone's attention,
often by ringing a bell or chime, and then gives the next instructions. "Each
table should decide who will be its host or hostess. That person will remain
at the table for the whole session. In a minute I will ask the others to get
up and move to new tables. When everyone is seated, the person remaining to
host the table will welcome the new people, tell them what has been discussed
and bring them up to date as to the key ideas and questions that emerged from
After the table host explains what occurred during the first round, each new
person at the table can tell what occurred at the table they just came from.
When each person has had a chance to share, the host of the Cafe rings a bell
and asks everyone to return to their home table to compare notes. At the end
of this next session most people in the room will have heard the ideas
generated by the others in the Cafe.
Sitting at a small cafe table, one is aware of the many places where similar
discussions are taking place all over the world. The ideas and questions that
surface during a cafe experience are carried to other places and shared with
other people, so the cafe becomes a network. As a community organizer,
Juanita is aware that social change often -- if not always -- begins with
conversations. Looking at what might happen, what needs to be addressed,
feeling connected to the issues and to each other is an integral part of
change. The Cafe provides this experience.
I have experimented with a few Recipes for World Cafe variations. You may
wish to try a few of these. And please send me your ideas for further
variations or your feedback on how the Cafe concept is working in your
PASSION CAFE (Cafe with Open Space a la carte)
The Passion Cafe is conducted with the same basic tables, chairs, and
supplies except that each table has a number and smaller pieces of paper
available on the tables. The chairs can be set up set up in a large circle as
people enter the room or in clusters around the tables.
As people enter the room the music is lively and a sign welcomes them to the
Passion Cafe. They hostess asks everyone to be seated and suggests that many
people have a subject they feel passionately about (related to the theme
topic of the event). Anyone who wants to suggest a topic for discussion takes
a piece of paper from any table and writes their "passion" in one sentence.
The host then invites each person to read their passion and write a number on
it that relates to the number of one of the tables. The passion statements
are then posted on a wall. When there is a passion statement with a number
for each table number, the host invites everyone to look at the statements,
select a topic and sit at the corresponding table. If more than six people
select the same topic, they simply form two or more groups. The Cafe then
begins. I have found that when the topics are selected in such a manner it is
best not to ask people to move from table to table but rather to encourage
them to pursue their passions -- adding that anyone who wishes to can and
move to a new table at any point during the event. You can end the Cafe by
asking each table to report briefly to the whole group on the most exciting
insights of the evening. You can also end by dancing!
POSTER CAFE (Cafe with a side of Dialogue)
For this Cafe variation I place posters around the room and as people enter
encourage them to wander around and look at the posters. (These can also be
on flip charts standing on easels places around the room.) The posters are
made on flip chart paper using quotes or questions and simple illustrations
or graphics. The instructions are to look at each poster and then stand by
the one that most engages you. It might be one you strongly disagree with or
one you think is quite true, the important thing is that, for whatever
reason, you are drawn to it. When everyone has stopped by a poster the
instructions from the host are:
"Notice who is standing with you -- if you are alone, you might want to join
another group. Now, take a few minutes to discuss why you were drawn to
this particular quote, image or question."
After the groups have talked for 5-10 minutes, the hostess asks everyone to
stop and notice the "quality of their listening". She might ask,
"Are you planning what you are going to say next? Are you focused on
convincing others or learning from them?"
The groups are invited to find a table and continue pursuing the topic that
drew them together. At another point the hostess might suggest,
"Notice the pace at which you are conversing. What would happen if you
"Notice the impulse behind your decision to speak. Are you speaking to let
other people know what you know? You may want to experiment with speaking
only when you want to inquire or extend your thinking into new territory."
Variation: The hostess does not need to orchestrate the discussion in a
Poster Cafe -- she could simply ask people to create table discussion
groups after they group around posters.
In this variation the Cafe is set up one day a week, every week, in a
workplace cafeteria or lunch room. If there are multiple sites, Cafe Day is
the same everywhere. This is particularly useful for multinational
corporations with locations around the world and people who frequently travel
among them. On Cafe Day the lunch tables have extra touches -- perhaps a
small vase of flowers, candles, paper placemats or tablecloths. On each table
there is a sign or flag with a topic or question written on it. After picking
up your lunch, you select a table based upon your interest in its topic. Or
there could be one topic for the entire room and a host who speaks VERY
briefly about the topic. At each table there is a host who agreed in advance
to be responsible for recording any questions or insights the group wants to
capture and share. Cafe Day insights and questions could be posted on the
wall and on the Intranet. Questions surfaced one week could become table
topics for the next Cafe Day.
CAFE TO GO...
A lunch time variation on Cafe is to serve a meal in courses. As in Friday
Cafes, each table will have a posted topic and a host. Participants have 20
minutes at each table and will sit at three different tables. Cafe begins as
each person picks up fruit and cheese, soup or some other first course. They
take their plate to a table and begin talking about the posted topic. After
twenty minutes, people pick up a second course such as sandwiches. Hosts
return to the same tables, and everyone else moves to a new table. This
process is repeated a third time with dessert.
STORY CAFE another variation
At the recent Homestead Cafe in Mill Valley we experimented with beginning a
Cafe by asking each person at a four person table to tell the story of his or
her life and then comment on the major themes in their present life that
connect to the story.
We allowed about 20-30 minutes for each person to tell his or her story. The
listeners then gave some feedback about what they heard, or asked questions.
This process brought us to deeper understanding and connection with each other.
In some cases the listeners reported on any themes or inklings of the "Soul's
Code" that they noticed while listening to the storyteller. In other cases we
found that we could move deeper by discussing feelings and responses that the
story evoked. By focusing in on an uncomfortable moment in the storytelling,
one group was able to reflect on what just happened and then share what
they were thinking and FEELING at that point in the telling.
CAFE TIPS (Stop, breathe and notice)
We discovered that when a new group forms around a table -- or a new person
enters the room -- it is helpful to stop, breathe, notice our individual and
our collective energies to gain a felt sense of the energy of the newly
configured group and then proceed.
World Cafe Questions
The World Cafe website