What is a World Café?

In a World Café we host intentional conversations around a question or issue that matters. The basic concept is to create a café like atmosphere (e.g., tables of 4 or 5 people, refreshments) where participants have a series of conversations with different groups of people. (How often have you solved the problems of the world over a conversation at a cafe?) Sometimes the conversations go for 20-25 minutes although we often use shorter periods.

After each conversation, people move to different tables and continue to have a conversation around the same question or a new question. Often one person remains at the table to welcome new people to the table and to provide a brief overview of the conversation held at the table, but sometimes everybody moves. (There’s a step-by-step description of a World Cafe in a school HERE.)

There are seven design principles for a World Café:

  1. Clarify the purpose. It helps to be clear about the reason you are bringing people together and what you hope to achieve by hosting the conversations. I find World Cafés particularly useful for generating ideas, discovering what people are passionate about, deepening relationships, and exploring questions in some depth. It is important to pay close attention to the question(s) you will ask and to find a question that encourages reflection.
  2. Create a hospitable space. We want to create a safe, welcoming space where people feel comfortable and can do their best thinking. I’d like to be better at creating the visual touches (like flowers and candles on the tables) but I think I am good at creating a safe, welcoming atmosphere which is also vital.
  3. Explore questions that matter. World Café’s work well when they explore questions that matter to participants. We want to create powerful questions (or a series of questions) that are thought provoking, encourage deeper reflection and opens up possibilities. I find that strength-based or appreciative inquiry questions are a solid starting point.
  4. Encourage everyone’s contribution. World Cafés are an inclusive group process that values everybody’s contribution. The conversations are ideally held in groups of no more than four or five to encourage participation. I find it annoying when physical constraints create barriers to small group conversations, for example venues that only have fairly large tables. (I’m currently negotiating with a venue to find an alternative to large round tables that hold 10 people!). We don’t want only one note-taker so everybody at the table is encouraged to jot down thoughts, highlight comments by others or to express themselves through drawing or doodling. Some people are quite visual thinkers and it is can be liberating to encourage alternative forms of expression.
  5. Cross-pollinate and connect diverse perspectives. After each round of conversation, participants are invited to go to different tables so that they can hear from a range of people. If the same question is used for more than one round, the subsequent conversations usually help people to explore the question in greater depth. By moving people around we create a web of connections, ideas and insights. There can be quite dramatic shifts in thinking as people hear from a range of perspectives.
  6. Listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions. We want to encourage active listening so that participants help each other reflect deeply on the questions being asked. As conversations proceed, participants are encouraged to identify themes, insights or deeper questions.
  7. Harvest and share collective discoveries. Reporting back to the larger group is an important part of small group processes, but they can also be mind-numbing. We normally ask tables to reflect on their conversations and identify two or three pieces of gold (on a large post-it note) they can bring back to the rest of the group. Rather than asking for an in-depth account of the conversations, we encourage tables to report the essence or key themes of their conversations. The process of identifying the pieces of gold (we normally ask for two or three) can be a powerful process in its own right.

Based on a World Café I helped facilitate with local youth (as part of a consultation called Shout Out), a World Café might go something like this:

  1. Participants were welcomed, everyone was introduced and the context was set
  2. We provided an overview of the process and café etiquette explained
  3. Conversation 1: What time is it for Newcastle? After the conversation the people were invited to move to a different table except for one person (the host – we suggested the person with the longest hair) who stayed to provide a BRIEF overview of the conversation to the new people at the table.
  4. Conversation 2: What time is it for Newcastle? After the conversation, each table (there were around 10) was invited to share a couple of pieces of gold before everybody but the hosts changed table.
  5. Conversation 3: What makes Newcastle unique? Again after the conversation each table shared a couple of pieces of gold and then found a new table (except for the hosts).
  6. Conversation 4: What else could Newcastle be? After the conversations each table shared a couple of pieces of gold.
  7. We then moved into Open Space to explore some of the ideas in more depth.

Some of the features that helped the World Café work well included:

  • We had small round tables that sat four people comfortably
  • Each table had a variety of coloured textas and everybody was encouraged to doodle or draw (so we often end up with some great sheets of paper)
  • We had around 10 youth who had met before the forum and had discussed the process and how they could help the day. While they didn’t necessarily act as hosts, they were able to ensure everybody had a chance to contribute and helped with the smooth running of the Café

You can read more about World Café at http://www.theworldcafe.com/ and http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-worldcafe.html.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

  1. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. Making parents feel welcome in schools
  4. Shout Out youth forum – planning
  5. Shout Out youth forum – reflections
  6. Setting the context for a world cafe

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.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What is a World Café?

  1. Pingback: Types of community engagement – creating boxes? | Sustaining Community

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