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More on the World Cafe



The World Café process is particularly useful in the following situations:

The Café is less useful when:


Café Know How

The key to creating a successful World Café conversation is employing the seven guiding principles, which when used in combination fosters courageous conversations and collective intelligence.

The Principles of The World Café

Clarify The Context
Create Hospitable Space
Explore Questions That Matter
Encourage Everyone's Contribution
Connect Diverse Perspectives
Listen Together and Notice Patterns
Share Collective Discoveries


Principle One: Clarify The Context

There is an old saying that if you don't know where you are going any road will get you there. When you have a clear idea of the what and why of your Café then the how becomes much easier. Here are a few questions to ask yourself and those helping you plan:


Principle Two: Create Hospitable Space

Most meeting places are sterile, cold, and impersonal. Consider choosing warm, inviting environments with natural light and comfortable seating. Honor our long traditions of human hospitality by offering food and refreshments. Hospitable space also means "safe" space--where everyone feels free to offer their best thinking.

Hospitable space begins with the invitation to attend a Café. Include the theme or central question you'll be exploring in your Café in the invitation. State it as an open-ended exploration, not a problem-solving intervention. Use color, hand printing, graphics and other ways to make it stand out from the deluge of paper and e-messages we all receive.

When we ask people where they have had some of their most significant conversations, nearly everyone recalls sitting around a kitchen or dining room table. There is a easy intimacy when gathering at a small table, that most of us immediately recognize. When you walk into a room and see it filled with café tables you know that you are not in for your usual business meeting.

Creating a Café ambiance is easy and need not be expensive:


Principle Three: Explore Questions That Matter

Knowledge emerges in response to compelling questions. Find questions that are relevant to the real-life concerns of the group. Powerful questions that "travel well" help attract collective energy, insight, and action as they move throughout a system. Try to craft questions that will stimulate a diverse range of thinking. Generating a multiplicity of viewpoints will enrich the dialogue and will result in better collective understanding of the dynamics involved in a system. Depending on the time available, and your objectives, your Café may explore a single question or use a progressively deeper line of inquiry through several conversational rounds.

As we have worked with groups over the years we have asked hundreds of people what makes a powerful question. Several themes have emerged.

A powerful question:

A note about appreciative process...

David Cooperrider has long championed something he calls "appreciative inquiry." The major premise here is that the questions we ask and the way we ask them will focus us in a particular manner and will greatly affect the outcome of our inquiry. If we ask: What is wrong and who is to blame? We set up a certain dynamic of problem-solving and blame assigning. While there may be instances where such an approach is desirable, when it comes to hosting a Café, we have found it much more effective to ask people questions that invite the exploration of possibilities and that connect them with why they care.

One potential pitfall is posing questions that ask about the nature of truth. Philosophers have spent thousands of years arguing the nature of truth and many of the wars in history have been fought over such questions. We are after "shared meaning", which does not mean that we all share the same perspective on what is true, but rather, that each participant has the opportunity to share what is true and meaningful for them. This in turn will allow us all to see our collective situation in a different light, hopefully enlarging our individual views of truth along the way. Our experience has been that questions which focus on "What is useful here?", are more effective at generating engagement on the part of participants and tend to provoke less defensive reactions than questions which focus on "What is true?"

(Some sample Cafe Questions)


Principle Four: Encourage Everyone's Contribution

People engage deeply when they feel they are contributing their thinking to questions that are important to them. Encourage all participants to contribute to the conversation. As Meg Wheatley says "Intelligence emerges as a system connects to itself in new and diverse ways." Each participant in the Café represents an aspect of the whole system's diversity and as each person has the chance to connect in conversation more of the intelligence inherent in the group becomes accessible.

We have found that on occasion it is helpful to have a "talking object" on the tables. Originally used by numerous indigenous peoples, a talking object can be a stick or stone, a marker or salt shaker, almost anything so long as it can be passed among the people at the table. There are two aspects to the talking object. Whomever holds the talking object is the only one empowered to speak. And whomever is not holding it is empowered to listen. For the speaker the responsibility is to focus on the topic and express as clearly as possible their thoughts about it. For the listeners, the responsibility is to listen with the implicit assumption that the speaker has something wise and important to say. Listen with a willingness to be influenced, listen for where this person is coming from and appreciate that their perspective, regardless of how divergent from your own, is equally valid and represents a part of the larger picture which none of us can see by ourselves.

It is not necessary to use a talking object all the time, but in cases where the topic being explores raises impassioned responses, it can be a very effective way to ensure everyone has the opportunity to contribute, even if they simply choose to hold the talking object and observe a few minutes of silence.


Principle Five: Connect Diverse Perspectives

Ask members to offer their individual perspectives and listen for what is emerging "in the middle of the table". Use the tablecloths and markers to create a "shared visual space" through drawing the emerging ideas. Sometimes the co-created pictures can really be worth a thousand words in showing the relationships between ideas.

A woman we know once remarked: "The most radical thing you can do is to introduce people to folks they don't know." Make sure that members from the first round each go to different tables as the conversational rounds progress. This cross-pollination of ideas often produces surprising results that could not have happened otherwise.

Setting up your Café in conversational rounds and asking people to change tables between rounds allows for a dense web of connections to be woven in a short period of time. Each time you travel to a new table you are bringing with you the threads of the last round and interweaving them with those brought by other travelers. As the rounds progress the conversation moves to deeper levels. People who arrived with fixed positions often discover that after a couple of rounds of conversation they are more open to new and different ideas.

Our experience shows that it's very useful to ask one person to remain at a table to act as the table host. This person will summarize the conversation of the previous round for the newcomers ensuring that any important points are available for consideration in the upcoming round.


Six: Listen Together and Notice Patterns

Listening is a gift we give to one another. The quality of our listening is perhaps the most important factor determining the success of a Café. Whole books and courses have been written about how to listen. One of our favorite analogies comes from jazz great Wynton Marsalis who explains that when jazz musicians get together to jam, whoever is the best listener ends up contributing the most to the music, because they are able to play off of whatever is being offered by the other cats in the band. Café conversations share that jazz element of inviting each person to express themselves authentically, and those who listen skillfully are able to easily build on what is being shared. A few tips for improving our listening:

Ask folks to notice their tendency to plan their response to what is being said, and inquire internally as to how they can best support themselves and others as both speakers and listeners


Principle Seven: Share Collective Discoveries

Conversations held at one table reflect a pattern of wholeness that connects with the conversations at the other tables. The last phase of the Café involves making this pattern of wholeness visible to everyone. To do so, hold a conversation between the individual tables and the whole group. Ask the table groups to spend a few minutes considering what has occurred in their Café rounds which has been most meaningful to them. Distill these down to the essence and then have each table share out to the whole group the nuggets which are being discovered at their table. Make sure that you have a way to capture this, either on flip charts, or by having each table record them on large post-it notes, or even their table cloths which can then be taped to a wall so that everyone can see them. After the each table has had a chance to report out to the whole group take a few minutes of silent reflection and consider:


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