As a conversational process, the World Café is an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work, or community. As a process, the World Café can evoke and make visible the collective intelligence of any group, thus increasing people’s capacity for effective action in pursuit of common aims.
The integrated design principles have been distilled over the years as a guide to intentionally harnessing the power of conversation. When used in combination, they provide useful guidance for anyone seeking creative ways to foster authentic dialogue in which the goal is thinking together and creating actionable knowledge.
Set the Context
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:
- What is the topic or issue we want to address or explore?
- Who needs to be invited to participate in this conversation?
- Who represents both the conventional and the unconventional wisdom?
- How long do we have for the inquiry?
- What line(s) of inquiry do we want to pursue? What themes are most likely to be meaningful and stimulate creativity?
- What is the best outcome we can envision? How might we design a path toward that outcome?
Create Hospitable Space
Most meeting places are sterile, cold, and impersonal. Consider choosing warm, inviting environments with natural light and comfortable seating. Honour World Café’s 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.
When people are asked where they have experienced their most significant conversations, nearly everyone recalls sitting around a kitchen or dining room table. There is an easy intimacy when gathering at a small table, that most of us immediately recognise. When you walk into a room and see it filled with café tables you know that you are not in for your usual consultation.
Create an ambiance in which young people can relax and be themselves.
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.
A powerful question is:
- Simple and clear
- Thought provoking
- Generates energy
- Focuses inquiry
- Surfaces assumptions
- Opens new possibilities
- Invites deeper reflection
- Seeks what is useful
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.
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.
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 travellers. As the rounds progress the conversation moves to deeper levels. People who arrived with fixed positions often find that they are more open to new and different ideas.
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.
Listening 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 the most powerful things you can do is help young people to develop strong listening skills. A few tips for improving our listening
- Help people to notice that their tendency to plan their response to what is being said actually detracts from both the speaker and the listener
- Listen as if each person were truly wise, and sharing some truth that you may have heard before but do not yet fully grasp
- Listen with an openness to be influenced by the speaker
- Listen to support the speaker in fully expressing themselves
- Listen for deeper questions, patterns, insights and emerging perspectives
- Listen for what is not being spoken along with what is being shared
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 emerged in their Café rounds, which has been most meaningful to them. Distil these insights, patterns, themes and deeper questions down to the essence and then provide a way to get them out to the whole room. It can be helpful to cluster this aspect of the conversation by asking for one thing that was new or surprising and then asking people to share only those ideas which link and build on that particular aspect. When it is clear that the group has exhausted this topic ask for another one and repeat the process until you have given each table or person the opportunity to speak about what matters to them. 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 each table has had the opportunity to share their insights, the whole group may wish to take a few minutes of silent reflection and consider:
- What is emerging here?
- If there was a single voice in the room, what would it be saying?
- What deeper questions are emerging as a result of these conversations?
- Do we notice any patterns and what do those patterns point to, or how do they inform us?
- What do we now see and know as a result of these conversations
Adapted with permission from The World Café Community Foundation at www.theworldcafe.com.