This week I have been exploring using The World Cafe method with a number of different groups. I love The World Cafe website, it is a great source of good practice examples. There are photographs so you can see how different groups have organized their cafes. There is even a group in Russia who are using a real café for a regular exchange. The site has resources you can download. It is all maintained by volunteers and through donations: www.theworldcafe.com
I have used the method with a variety of different groups and in different situations. The biggest cafe event was in Rome for a group of 150 senior executives. The cafe format fundamentally changes the environment of the average conference room from the formal seating useful for listening to expert speakers to a more democratic, informal setting which is much more useful for listening to each other. In the ideal world there would be the perfectly formed small circular tables and comfortable, easily movable chairs so a group of 5 people can easily talk to each other across the table. The group size is important, if you have more than 5 then it is less easy for most groups to self facilitate, this tends to mean that more dominate people get more air time and the less extrovert participants will not get a chance to input.
Having established a cafe type of environment the next task is to get people talking and listening to each other by the use of a carefully worded question. An interesting open question is enough to start the process of dialogue. In a cafe environment the focus is on the quality of the conversation and not about coming to a set outcome. It is a model of facilitation where the emphasis is on people talking openly with each other about a topic which is important to them. If the question is good enough then the conversation will flow.
Rotating the groups is one of the great assets of the cafe style, and the rotation is organised to ensure that everyone gets a change of people to talk with so that they can explore the question from some different perspectives.
What is great about hosting a cafe session is that you can watch the changes in people. At the beginning everyone is a little hesitate and uncomfortable with the changes in their usual environment. There is a degree of discomfort in having to actively create conference content instead of passively listening to an expert speaker This is all evident in the tense body language in the room and then something happens as the process starts. During the first rotation I will notice people smiling, listening intently and starting to become more animated. By the second rotation the groups are leaning forward, animated conversation begins and the volume in the room increases. It is a very satisfying process as I know that real conversations start in these groups which follow on after the cafe has closed.
The World Cafe format is a fantastic format to encourage networking and practice sharing. Far too often events have time set aside for “networking” but it is essentially free time and for the more introverted participants this can be a very nerve racking time where they dread being trapped in a corner by a talkative salesperson, with no chance to escape.
I hope that one of my conversations this week will result in our team of facilitators being asked to run a cafe in my home town of Leeds. One thing we need more of right now are ways to help people to connect, to share and to find ways out of the mess that some of these great experts have got us into. We need to turn to each other to find our solutions.