World cafe on steroids

Today I hosted an interesting World Cafe at a conference of Adolescent Family Counsellors. It demonstrated that facilitators need to be pretty flexible and we ended up doing a World Cafe on steroids. The theme of the conference was “Conversations from the Grapevines” and there was a bit of a focus on stories. Originally I was going to help finish the conference with a 90 minute World Cafe around three questions:

  1. What story from the conference had the most impact on you?
  2. What other story has had a significant influence on your practice?
  3. What can we learn from these stories?

Due to a number of factors beyond my control, we ended up with a bit over 30 minutes. So rather than fairly leisurely conversations we had to crank up the pace. I decided to ask only one question, “What will you take away from the conference?”

There were a number of factors that helped make the World Cafe be a success despite the limited time. World Cafes are based on seven design principles:

  1. Set the context
  2. Create hospitable space
  3. Explore questions that matter
  4. Encourage everyone’s contribution
  5. Cross pollinate and connect diverse perspectives
  6. Listen together for patterns, insights and deeper questions
  7. Harvest and share collective discoveries (Brown & Isaacs, 2005).

The context had been set by the previous two and half days of the conference. It was a small group (under 25 and, as some people had left for home, there were only 18 people for the World Cafe). It was a residential conference so they who built quite a sense of community. In setting up the world cafe today I rushed it a bit, but fortunately they are used to group work and they coped. I used the Cafe Ettiquette in Brown & Isaacs (2005):

  1. Focus on what matters
  2. Contribute your thinking and experience
  3. Listen to understand
  4. Connect ideas
  5. Listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions
  6. Play! Doodle! Draw!

The space was very hospitable – in the vineyards of the Hunter Valley. The room had a lovely large verandah so we held it outside (on tables that were just a little too large.) There was tea, coffee and cake to help create a positive atmosphere.

While the original questions had built on the theme of stories and would have allowed them to consider both their experience at the conference and in their normal work, the new question allowed them to reflect on the conference and to think about what they had gained from it. I think they were questions that mattered to the groups at that time and in the context of the last session of the conference.

In order to encourage everybody’s contribution, World Cafes have small groups (four tables of 4-5 people in this case) and we discouragegroups from having one scribe. Each table had a packet of coloured textas and everybody is encouraged to add thoughts, doodle or draw. Many in this group use creative approaches in their counselling and so the pages looked great and everybody was very involved.

After each round of conversation I asked one person to remain at the table to provide a brief summary of the discussion while the others moved to different tables. This mixes the groups up and encourages the cross-fertilisation of ideas. We had three rounds of conversations, each lasting only seven minutes and then a fourth round to find two or three “pieces of gold” (something of value to bring back to the large group).

The pace was a bit too fast for really deep listening but it still worked. I’m sometimes asked about the impact of having only seven minutes for a conversation. Today was a good example of how it works.The first round can be a bit like a brainstorm. Everybody gets out their ideas and there mightn’t be all that much discussion. In the second round, the pace slows down a bit, and in the third round they have good conversation where people can be really listened to. It helped that these were all people whose job is essentially listening.

By returning to their original table to finish, they have the opportunity to see what other people added to their sheet. Rather than reporting back everything, we often ask for two or three “pieces of gold.” This encourages them to think about what was most significant in their conversations and helps explore  their collective discoveries. It would have been good to have a bit more time for this final conversation, but they did well. Normally I ask them to write down their gold on post it notes, but this time, they just marked them on their sheets. For reporting back we all stood in a circle with the sheets and they shared the pieces of gold.

It was certainly a bit faster than I had planned but, partly because it was a small group who were very used to working with these types of processes,  I think it helped the conference finish on a positive note.


Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2005). The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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