I found the World Cafe fascinating and inspiring, it triggered a flurry of emails to former coworkers and people that I organize with filled with new ideas. The book also focused its scope (with good reason) on a particular format. It presumed that readers either are already participating in a World Cafe style dialog or have the power to create one.
What if we don’t? Most of the time, conversation structure evolves out of a conversation. It’s not helpful to walk into a conversation with a clear answer (“The World Cafe format!”) of the question of what that conversation or subsequent conversations should look like. What’s helpful, as articulated so well in the book, is to walk into a conversation with questions. My takeaway from the book is less about the specifics of the World Cafe format (I’ll probably only be in a handful of world cafes in my life) and more about the kinds of questions to ask myself and others in any conversation, regardless of the format and how much power I have over it:
- Set the Context: Who’s in this conversation and why? How can the discoveries of this conversation inform the context of future conversations we might have?
- Create Hospitable Space: Is there something particularly positive or problematic about the space that this group is in? If positive I should thank whoever arranged for it to be that way, if problematic I should see if I have the power to change it without disrupting the group.
- Explore Questions that Matter: What stated or unstated question is the group grappling with right now? Would it be useful for me to articulate that question? Is there a more alive way to approach that question that I can put out to the group?
- Encourage Everyone’s Contribution: Am I being mindful of the space that I take up in discussion? When I finish speaking I should use verbal and/or body language to encourage contributions from people who have not had a chance to contribute.
- Cross-Pollinate and Connect Diverse Perspectives: What ideas are emerging between the opinions articulated in the group? How can I focus on teasing those ideas out rather than crystallizing my own opinion?
- Listen for Patterns, Insights and Deeper Questions: Am I listening first and composing my thoughts second? Towards the second half of a conversation I should focus on synthesizing and reflecting back what I head from the group.
- Harvest and Share Collective Discoveries: Is there a way for the group to record what’s going on? If so, how many eyes are looking at it and how many hands are contributing to it? (More is better.) How can I as a group participant help to make sure that this happens?