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The World Cafe

The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter by Juanita Brown

Here are a few of my notes…

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It’s never enough just to tell people about some new insight. Rather, you have to get them to experience it in a way that evokes its power and possibility. Instead of pouring knowledge into people’s heads, you need to help them grind a new set of eyeglasses so they can see the world in a new way. —John Seely Brown, Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation

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Are you telling or helping grind new glasses?

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Conversation is the core process by which we humans think and coordinate our actions together.

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Learning Organizations True learning organizations are a space for generative conversations and concerted action which creates a field of alignment that produces tremendous power to invent new realities in conversation and to bring about these new realities in action. Fred Kofman and Peter Senge “Communities of Commitment” Organizational Dynamics

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Consider the conversations you are currently having in your family, your organization, or your community. To what degree do they create frustration and fragment efforts or offer new insights and ways to work collectively?

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For the last several years, we’ve been in hypergrowth mode, with double-digit increases. We’re consistently surpassing the expectations of the corporation. I can’t say if that is the direct result of our Café conversations or the result of other things we’ve also been doing, many of which have come from our Café work. But here’s what I can say: the World Café has been very essential, very unique, because it’s the only process I’ve found that consistently connects intellect and emotion to a business frame of reference. That’s a key strategic business advantage.

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For a businessperson, the numbers are the measure of success. If we don’t have the numbers, that’s the end of the conversations. But if we don’t have the conversations, that’s the end of the numbers. It’s a paradox. The numbers are only the outcome of actions that you’ve taken upstream, where the pulse of the organization lives. You need to look at how alive the organization is, how people interact and talk with each other—their relationships. That is a key part of the value-producing capacity of the organization. It’s very difficult for people to measure that, since the only tool they have to measure is the numbers.

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But there are other indicators. I know we’re succeeding when I see people more engaged in our business decisions, taking risks, getting the issues on the table, not being afraid to speak and to take action. For example, if you look at the first Café conversation versus the tenth one, you can see a huge evolution in confidence—a knowledge that whatever the issue is, we’re going to solve it.

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But at the same time, we need better ways to move between the discovery part of a Café conversation and the action-planning part. We need to make sure when moving into the implementation phase that we leaders don’t go back to our old control mode of doing things.

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With his colleague Anders Bröms of Sweden, Tom later wrote another seminal book, Profit Beyond Measure, focused on these questions (2000). Based on extensive research, it encouraged leaders to shift their attention from a focus on management exclusively by results (MBR) toward “management by means” (MBM)—the relationships and processes that shape the organization’s capacity to learn, adapt to changing circumstances, and create the knowledge necessary for its long-term performance.

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In Elaine’s words, “What we’re saying is that conversation is the essential, fundamental, and indispensable means. But how these conversations are viewed and structured will lead to different outcomes.” Tom adds, “If conversation is seen as a core means for creating organizational performance, then how leadership works with conversation will be a key factor in determining how well the organization does. If people say, ‘Conversation means shut up and don’t speak until you’re spoken to, or don’t talk until the boss authorizes you to,’ that will lead to one set of results, and if the conversations occur more along the lines of the World Café principles, that will lead to a different set of results.”

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For me, entering the space of authentic dialogue is like entering this central courtyard in the spacious home of our common humanity. The World Café is only one valuable doorway into this central courtyard of collective possibility.

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What if context is like the banks of a river through which collective meaning flows?

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We sent the Café questions to keynote speakers and other presenters in advance. This helped clarify the framework in which they would share their own reflections in their morning keynote addresses as well as in the circle dialogues among key speakers and presenters prior to each afternoon’s Café.

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Context is the situation, frame of reference, and surrounding factors that, in combination, help shape the ways we make meaning of our experiences. Most of us are not used to thinking consciously about context even though its presence is critical for our minds to create patterns of understanding (Johnson, 2001). We become confused and uncomfortable when the relation between the larger context and the content we are exploring or the process that’s being used is unclear.

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Bringing nature to the Café—or the Café to nature, as we did in this case—serves as a reminder that the Café itself is a natural process, reflecting nature’s deepest self-organizing principles. To the degree that you, as a host, create a space that taps into this element, you invite participants to engage more easily in authentic conversations and enjoy creative ways of being with one another.

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Balancing safety and adventure . . . is at the heart of good Café hosting

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Juanita: Welcome to our Café on Questions. Everyone here has been part of other World Café conversations, but let me just share again how we’ll be working together. We’ll have three rounds of conversation. As your Café host, I’ll let you know when each round is coming to a close. One person will stay at the table as a host to welcome guests who have been a part of other conversations. They’ll be bringing seed ideas from their tables into the next round. The important thing is to capture the essence of what’s been said in drawings, symbols, and words on your tablecloths. Continue to link and build ideas. Notice patterns and common themes as well as the aha’s. Perhaps we could play with the Café question I’ve put on the flip chart here:

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You know, David Isaacs shared with me that he sometimes finds it works well not even to have prepared a question in advance. He often likes to ask a Café group: “What core question, if explored, could make the most difference to the situation we’re considering?” or “What do we not know, that if we did know, could transform this situation for the better?”

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“What are the ways we can begin to discover what questions are at the heart of things, even before the Café begins?” Perhaps it might mean including a request in the invitation for people to send in their own burning questions related to the Café topic ahead of time. Then you can post these all around the room for people to see as they come into the Café, or begin with a key question you’ve discovered in advance from the people themselves that seems really powerful and relevant.

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For example, in addressing the results of more than a decade of research and practice in the area of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney state unequivocally that “the most important insight we have learned with AI to date is that human systems grow toward what they persistently ask questions about”

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“One of the basic assumptions of the strategic questioning process is that knowledge resides and is alive in all people. . . . The point here is to ask questions in such a way that it lets the ideas and energy come from the individual or the system itself”

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In their Encyclopedia of Positive Questions (2002), Diana Whitney and David Cooperrider share hundreds of questions that have been used in their work with Appreciative Inquiry to elicit innovative ideas and new possibilities in both organizations and communities.

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Years later, I was working on a corporate project where we were experimenting with what might be possible if we were to look at the organization as a community. As we shifted our thinking toward the idea of building community, we found that honoring and encouraging each person’s unique contribution seemed more compelling than focusing on either participation or empowerment—concepts still dear to the hearts of many organizational change specialists. The distinction is subtle but important. Contribution has a different tone and feeling than individual participation. Important as it is, the focus on individual participation can lead to an overemphasis on the I: I’m voicing my opinions. I’m speaking up. I’m participating. In contrast, focusing on contribution creates a relationship between the I and the we. Employees in the corporate community began to ask themselves, “What is my unique contribution to our larger mission as a company?”

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As Café hosts, we’ve become increasingly intentional about encouraging everyone’s contribution as a core design and operating principle—whether that be the contribution of ideas and insights or of concrete support related to critical operations. For example, World Café etiquette, often shared at the beginning of a Café dialogue (see chapter 10), focuses on inviting everyone’s contribution rather than simply assuring each person a voice or asking that everyone participate.

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In addition, Café hosts often introduce a talking piece—a stone or other object—which slows down the conversation and provides an intentional space for each person to make his or her unique contribution to what is emerging in the center of the table.

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“There are people who listen, there are people who see patterns, and there are people who think in images.

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When people arrived, we set the tone. First, I asked people to remember a time when they’d had a really good conversation—a conversation that made them think, or made them curious, or caused a good laugh or cry. I asked them to share it with a neighbor if they liked—and then to share with the whole table what had helped that good conversation happen.

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It wasn’t until I was introduced to Mitchell Waldrop’s spellbinding book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (1992) that I began to consider more deeply the way the World Café process engages new levels of collaborative thinking and supports the development of unexpected insights, particularly in large-group settings. Waldrop brings scientific ideas to life as he describes the adventures of the multidisciplinary scientists at the Santa Fe Institute who did groundbreaking work in the field of complex adaptive systems.

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However, it is the creative cross-pollination of people and ideas combined with the disciplined use of questions as attractors that is perhaps the World Café’s defining contribution to dialogic learning and collective intelligence. David Marsing, former senior executive at Intel, points out that carefully framed questions operate as attractors around which the web of cross-pollinating ideas evolves to create coherent patterns of meaning.

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Another possibility, developed by our colleague Finn Voldtofte, is for the host to stay at the table at the end of the first round, while the three or four others at the table “travel for the listening,” each going to a new table for brief ten-minute learning visits. Their job is to collect one or two gems or seed ideas from the stories shared with them by the hosts of other conversations, and bring these key ideas back for consideration during the final round of synthesis at their home table.

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People sat in small conversational clusters. In that instance, each participant was given a card on which to write what he or she considered to be an essential idea or key insight from the first round of conversation. Each person then stood and faced outward from their cluster and exchanged the cards as an idea gift with a person from another group. Each small group continued by reading the ideas they’d received as gifts from members of other clusters, using the new connections these suggested for their ongoing dialogue. Members can also use cards or large sticky notes to synthesize core questions or key insights from the table as a whole, which can be sent forward from one table or conversation cluster to another to seed the inquiry as the conversation progresses.

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On a learning journey that explored Mexico’s social development, members moved periodically between minivans at rest stops, sharing their emerging perspectives as they continued to travel. One innovative host had members move between Café groups located at nature’s “tables,” each of which was a large redwood tree. Another used different colored mugs to facilitate the mixing and moving of people from different functional areas in a single business unit. The colored mugs enabled a “max-mix” for creative exchange, and at the same time, allowed people from the same area to find each other easily during the action planning phases of the Café dialogue.

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We then did something even more daring, but that worked amazingly well. We didn’t do any teaching about dialogue. Instead, we simply introduced a “dialogue stone” as a way to encourage better listening and avoid arguments and defensive positions. We brought in beautiful stones that were thousands of years old from a pebble beach on an island not far from the outskirts of Stockholm. They symbolized our land and the history of the natural world. We placed one stone in the middle of each table, along with a small vase of fresh flowers and colored pens. We then shared the basic idea behind the dialogue stones. We said that usually in meetings like this the discussion speeds up so fast that people have a hard time listening because they want to make sure their own ideas get heard. This is especially true when the participants come from very different camps. We asked the group to experiment with the dialogue stone as a practical tool for listening together and finding what was in the middle of the table. Only the person holding the stone would speak. As long as he or she held the stone, others would simply listen without interrupting. This would allow the individual who was holding the stone to stop and take a breath while thinking about what she really wanted to say instead of having to keep babbling so someone else wouldn’t cut in while she finished her thought.

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We encouraged people to speak in the first person, for themselves, and not with their formal organizational hat on—another departure from traditional meetings.

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The task of the other three participants at each Café table was simply to listen, but in a special way. We asked them to keep track of the ideas that emerged, and to draw in the middle of the tablecloth any interesting connections they could see among the ideas.

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In the second Café round, we added something new. We asked everyone to begin listening together as a group for the deeper assumptions and patterns of meaning underlying their varied perspectives and write them on the tablecloth as well.

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Each time we asked them to listen together for the next deeper layer of understanding they actually seemed to become even more interested in each other’s ideas and in the issues.

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Anne drew upon insights from the late theologian and author Nelle Morton (1985), who spoke of the special quality of listening to another person with one’s full attention as being a creative force that can evoke ideas that actually didn’t exist until the other was “heard into speech.”

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Yet we’ve discovered that something quite unexpected happens in World Café conversations when we ask everyone in the room to become ambassadors of meaning—listening together and carrying forward the essential ideas or aha insights into progressive rounds of conversation.

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As the host, you can encourage more reflective listening and thoughtful consideration of ideas during the conversation by introducing a talking piece, like the dialogue stone that Christina Carlmark introduced to the Café participants in her opening story. In addition, many hosts use musical interludes or poetry related to the topic, coupled with individual journaling at appropriate times, to create a reflective tone. Samantha Tan of Singapore points out that the use of music and poetry has the unique capacity to “shift people into a different state . . . opening a space for true reflection.” Using these approaches, or simply asking members to take a couple of minutes of quiet time to make notes on cards about what struck them in the conversation, all serve as powerful preludes to collective reflection on learnings, insights, and deeper questions, either toward the end of a round of conversation or prior to the large-group sharing of discoveries.

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I sometimes think of silence as a way to access a deep well in the center of the group. Silence is the pulley, similar to the rope in a well, that enables members to draw a deeper wisdom up from the common well of mutual exploration and experience.

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We are discovering that thinking together in conversation requires spaces between the notes in order to hear the music of collective wisdom. As a conversation host, give yourself permission to experiment with multiple approaches to creating the space for reflection—for listening individually and collectively to the deeper currents beneath the surface. Time for reflection is a gift that we too rarely give ourselves in the frenetic life of most organizations and communities. Yet World Café and other dialogue hosts are finding that creating time for reflection is essential to accessing the often surprising strategic insights that lie at the heart of effective action.

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At each table the team gave participants four different piles of colored paper. They asked the members to first take the yellow paper and write one phrase or sentence per sheet that reflected what people were saying publicly during meetings in their unit. They collected the yellow sheets in a manner that preserved the anonymity of the author. Then they asked the group to take the blue paper and write on it what people were saying in the restroom after the meeting, or at lunch when they were with friends. What was that conversation like? The blue papers were then collected in a similar manner. On the pink sheets, participants were asked to write what they thought other people in the university were saying about student affairs. Finally, the green sheets captured the answers to the question, “What are you not saying that you wish you could?”

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From these sheets, the Café team created a monster sticky wall with the colors clustered together from all the tables . . . all the yellows, greens, pinks, and blues. The idea was to harvest the group’s collective thinking and make their ideas visible so people could see new connections. They asked the group to take a gallery walk and notice the common themes and unique perspectives that stood out.

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We’ve found that although the raw data like tablecloths and wall graphics are extremely useful for members who have participated in Café dialogues, they are rarely in a form that can easily engage focused conversations in other parts of an organization. This is a real challenge in Cafés as well as other types of strategic dialogue. But when the outputs are intentionally blended into a coherent story, then this story can travel and engage others. For example, the DVD stories produced for student affairs have been widely shared across the university and have stimulated conversations about key questions with groups far removed from the original participants.

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Second, effective strategic conversations—conversations that can move learning forward in a large system—are made up of a repeating cycle of planting seeds, harvesting the fruits, refining the new seeds, and replanting them in new soil. I believe that the role of the leader is to tend the garden of strategic conversations and make sure that this type of planting and harvesting happens throughout their unit or their organization.

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If there are a lot of tables, we may have each table turn in a large card or sticky note with one key idea that expresses the essence of what was important from their conversations. If the group size is smaller, each member can contribute a card with the idea he or she feels is most essential. Then we can post these on a wall or cluster related cards and make a gallery tour from that. Other times we do a quick computer turnaround and publish a newspaper right on the spot, so participants can read the headlines and build on them for further conversation or action planning. We’ve even used video to create news stories about what people have learned.

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Another option is to have each Café table create an exhibition. You tell people, “In one hour you will have the opening show for the exhibition. We’ll serve drinks and everyone can come to the gallery and see what each Café table or group of tables created in terms of the essence of what’s been explored, what people learned, and possible action steps” (or whatever you want as output). After they have each created their own exhibition, people can take a tour of the other contributions in the gallery—but they can also add their insights and put actual comments on each other’s contributions. It’s like growing a living picture of the whole.

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In Poland, the American Society for Quality was hosting a Café at a conference on quality sponsored by the United Nations, a situation where formality and hierarchy had often affected the free sharing of ideas. In this case, Paul Borawski, the executive director of ASQ, used keypad polling technology to harvest insights and stimulate further exploration. “We’d pose a Café question . . . for example, ‘What do you think will be the future of quality in Poland?’ While the groups were in their Café dialogues I put up several options along a continuum—such as ‘It’s strong,’ ‘It’s at risk,’ and so on. Then, based on their sense of the discussion at their Café tables, we asked people to respond to the questions and we posted the aggregated results of the anonymous poll for the whole group to see. The moment they saw the varied results it completely opened the conversation in the large group. People asked questions, listened to insights from others, and got the benefit of seeing how their answer fit with the sense of the majority of people in the room.”

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In each round, people write personal insights and thoughts about their table’s question on large individual sticky notes that they keep with them as they move to subsequent rounds.

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During round two or three, the overall Café host or hosts walk around the room and write down the question that’s on each table’s tent card. We create a flip chart page for each one of these questions. If several of the table questions are the same, we put them on a single flip chart page, and if several are similar or related we post them near each other. By posting the questions around the room, everyone can begin to see the emerging outlines of the larger patterns of inquiry.

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At the conclusion of the last round, rather than giving a formal break (which tends to disperse the energy of the group) we give folks ten minutes to place their individual sticky notes next to the questions posted on the flip charts around the room. This gives people the opportunity to add their insights, ideas, inspirations, and what-if’s to the questions they were part of exploring as well as any of the others posted around the room.

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How then can members share collective insights without resorting to traditional report-outs that rarely reflect the liveliness or depth of the smaller group conversations?

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In addition, ask people to speak personally (and briefly) about what’s at the center of the collective conversations of which they’ve been a part. This enables what Swedish Café host Bo Gyllenpalm calls a “shared understanding of individual meanings” to emerge, revealing key facets of the conversational web while not requiring agreement on a single shared meaning in order for multiple perspectives to be included in later priority setting or action planning. In addition, encouraging the contribution of key personal meanings enables not only “head knowledge” but also “heart wisdom” to be revealed.

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One way this happens is through constant inclusion. I paid close attention to everyone’s needs because they were so explicit, watching to see if somebody was outside the process or somehow not included, and then inviting her in and encouraging her contribution. This an important job for the host, even in more conventional situations.

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As a conversation host, ask yourself: What can I do to make whomever I am with feel physically comfortable, emotionally safe, and intellectually challenged? How can I support members in discovering a deeper understanding and appreciation—for each other and for the questions we’re exploring? How can I engage the Café participants themselves in hosting each other and in discovering the magic in the middle of their conversations? Whatever answers you get and however they reveal themselves, begin to experiment with putting them into practice. Leave aside the techniques that don’t work and refine the ones that seem most effective. Above all, keep asking yourself the questions and integrate your answers into your hosting practice. You’ll soon discover the way of hosting that is most natural for you.

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Being clear about basic Café assumptions and Café etiquette orients members to underlying beliefs and personal behaviors that are useful in supporting constructive dialogue without being heavy-handed about “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”

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Ask hosts to welcome their new guests. Remind everyone that when they arrive at their new table, they should briefly introduce themselves before the table host shares the essence of the conversation from the previous round. Then the travelers add connections and ideas from the conversations at their previous tables. Ask everyone to listen carefully and build on each other’s contributions. Let people know if there is a new question for this round, and make sure it is posted where it can easily be seen.

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At times people will participate in the first round, go traveling for the second, and then return to their home table for a final round of synthesis.

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At times people will participate in the first round, go traveling for the second, and then return to their home table for a final round of synthesis. At other times, members will continue traveling for several rounds while the host stays as the ongoing steward of the evolving conversation and insights at their table. On occasion, people will simply travel for a very brief listening tour to hear what’s being explored at other tables prior to returning to their home table to both connect common threads and introduce diverse perspectives.

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However, we have found it often helpful to have a talking object on the tables to help ensure that no single participant takes over the group’s airtime. Originally used by indigenous peoples, a talking object can be a stick, a stone, a marker, a saltshaker—almost any object that can be passed among the people at the table. Ask people to pick up the talking piece when they are ready to speak, and return it to the center of the table when they are done. The talking piece can also be passed around the circle, or the person who begins can offer it as a gift to whomever he chooses, though people have the opportunity to pass if they wish. As the host, you can introduce the use of the talking piece as the Café begins or at any appropriate point in the process where you sense that deep listening and “slowing down the action” for more thoughtful engagement may be needed. There are two aspects to the talking object that encourage helpful member participation. Whoever is holding it is encouraged express his or her thoughts as clearly and briefly as possible. Whoever is not holding the talking piece is asked to listen with respect, appreciating the other’s perspective as a part of the larger picture. As host, you can assess what combination of free-flowing exchange and reflective listening to other members using the talking piece will work best. If you anticipate intense emotions or differences of opinion, it’s often helpful to begin with a talking piece and then move to a more free-flowing dialogue.

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If you anticipate difficulties or discover that a conversation seems to be getting really stuck, then in an upcoming round you might encourage participants to use the following three statements as their dialogue unfolds. What I heard you say that I appreciated is . . . What I heard that challenged my thinking is . . . To better understand your perspective I’d like to ask you . . .

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As the Café host, you can encourage the kinds of listening that will make insight, innovation, and action more likely to occur. At the start of the Café, ask members to enter the conversation with the goal of learning from each person at their table.

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Give people a few moments of silence to reflect on or jot down what they have learned in their travels, what has heart and meaning, or what is present now as a result of their conversations. Ask anyone in the room to share briefly a key idea, theme, or core question that holds real meaning for them personally.

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Post your insights. Each participant can write one key insight on a large sticky note and place it on the wall so that everyone can review the ideas during a break. They can be used at the end of a Café for consolidating key themes or action items.

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Questions for Focusing Collective Attention What question, if answered, could make the greatest difference to the future of the situation we’re exploring here? What’s important to you about this situation, and why do you care? What draws you/us to this inquiry? What’s our intention here? What’s the deeper purpose—the “big why”—that is worthy of our best effort? What opportunities can we see in this situation? What do we know so far/still need to learn about this situation? What are the dilemmas/opportunities in this situation? What assumptions do we need to test or challenge in thinking about this situation? What would someone who had a very different set of beliefs than we do say about this situation?

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Questions for Connecting Ideas and Finding Deeper Insight What’s taking shape here? What are we hearing underneath the variety of opinions being expressed? What is in the center of our listening? What’s emerging that is new for you? What new connections are you making? What have you heard that had real meaning for you? What surprised you? What puzzled or challenged you? What question would you like to ask now? What is missing from the picture so far? What are we not seeing? Where do we need more clarity? What has been your major learning or insight so far? What’s the next level of thinking we need to address? If there was one thing that hasn’t yet been said but is needed in order to reach a deeper level of understanding/clarity, what would that be?

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Questions That Create Forward Movement What would it take to create change on this issue? What could happen that would enable you/us to feel fully engaged and energized in this situation? What’s possible here and who cares about it? What needs our immediate attention going forward? If our success was completely guaranteed, what bold steps might we choose? How can we support each other in taking the next steps? What unique contribution can we each make? What challenges might come our way, and how might we meet them? What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out in a way that created new possibilities for the future of [our situation . . . ]? What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of [our situation . . . ]?

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The teachers discovered that they didn’t need a whole lot of training or new materials in order to have productive dialogue; they just needed the focused time to talk together and discover what they already knew about their kids and about what needed to be different.

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So, first we asked, “If you were to get hurt, how would that happen?” People began answering the question with risks that they identified from their own work situations. Then we’d ask the second question: “Do you want to manage these risks before people get hurt or after?” And of course they’d say, “Before.” Then we’d ask the final question: “Great! What do you want to do about it?” At that point, we didn’t have to facilitate anymore. We had invited them into in a meaningful conversation called “I don’t want to get hurt at work.” We’d talk together about methodologies—their own creative approaches for managing those risks. And finally we’d say, “Try out the answers you’ve come up with. Keep asking the questions, and revisit your answers as you learn more.”

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The first meeting that employed the World Café methodology—conducted with the board’s Strategic Planning Committee—was definitely a risk! Unlike past sessions, this two-day meeting was not designed to produce a traditional one-page plan. Instead, the goal was to develop key strategic questions that called for further exploration.

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David’s and my heroes. Two years earlier, Alan had written an HBR article, “What’s So New About the New Economy?” (1993, p. 28) where he posited—may I add, somewhat before his time—that in the new economy, where ideas and information are key currencies of exchange, conversation is the mother of invention.

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Two years earlier, Alan had written an HBR article, “What’s So New About the New Economy?” (1993, p. 28) where he posited—may I add, somewhat before his time—that in the new economy, where ideas and information are key currencies of exchange, conversation is the mother of invention.

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Yet even today, conversational leadership is not taught in most leadership development programs. How can we begin to cultivate both the organizational infrastructures and personal leadership capabilities that are needed to access and act on the wisdom that already exists in our organizations and communities?

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Mastering the art and architecture of powerful questions that evoke knowledge-sharing, inspire strategic dialogue, and invite committed action is a critical personal leadership skill (Vogt and others, 2003).

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As Bob Veazie discovered in his safety work at Hewlett-Packard: “It was the questions themselves, coupled with the invitation to explore them, that moved people from compliant behavior to committed performance.

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Authentic conversation that deepens a group’s thinking and evokes collaborative intelligence is less likely to occur in a climate of fear, mistrust, and hierarchical control. When the human mind and heart are fully engaged in exploring questions that matter, new knowledge often begins to surface. To succeed, leaders need to strengthen their personal skills in hosting dialogue and other approaches that deepen mutual inquiry. These capabilities include: Creating a climate of discovery Suspending premature judgment Exploring underlying assumptions and beliefs Listening for unexpected connections between ideas Encouraging the expression of a wide range of perspectives Articulating shared understandings Other aspects of effective hosting are also key, including clarifying the larger context, ensuring a welcoming environment, encouraging everyone’s contribution, and managing divergent viewpoints. Your personal authenticity, integrity, and values become increasingly central to establishing your credibility as a legitimate host and convener who can inspire trust and foster collaboration among diverse constituencies.

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How often do you hear a leader pose the question, Whose voices need to be included in this conversation? Who’s not here who should be? Not often. Yet cultivating conversational leadership requires leaders to become active connectors—of diverse people and stimulating ideas.

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As Gary Hamel of the London School of Economics points out, “Strategizing depends on creating a rich and complex web of conversations that cuts across previously isolated pockets of knowledge and creates new and unexpected combinations of insight”

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Developing meaningful dialogue is about creating conceptual fields that deepen or shift thinking”

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In today’s complex environment, leaders are discovering that one of their unique contributions is to provide conceptual leadership—creating shared contexts and common frameworks in which groups can deepen or shift their thinking together. We make meaning of our experiences through the language we use, the stories we share, and the images we favor. For example, holding the image of your organization as a battlefield, where members carry out “preemptive strikes” and “decimate the competition” evokes very different behavior than a shared understanding of the organization as a dynamic web of conversations and personal relationships, part of a living system that includes key internal and external stakeholders—at times even those you’ve traditionally thought of as “the competition.” Conversational leaders also put time and attention into framing a common language and articulating compelling scenarios—stories of the future—that can shape collective purpose and provide direction for organizational conversations.

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To what extent does your organization consider conversation to be the heart of “real work”?

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David had been asked by a small group of moms at the local West Marin School to host a World Café dialogue on the question, “What are the elements of an ideal educational experience for young people in our community?” The gathering was, it seems, a first—a large bilingual, bicultural event in which all advertising and every aspect of the meeting itself would be conveyed in both Spanish and English. The whole community, whether parents or not, was invited to attend. And for the very first time, schoolchildren were included as equal partners in the conversation about the future of their own learning.

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As humans we have the unique capacity for reflective awareness—the capacity to step back together and ask, “Why is this happening? Is there a better way?” In fact, the word consciousness comes from con-scire, meaning “knowing together.”

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Now that we know what is possible, how will we evolve a global culture in which people—including our national and international leaders—use dialogue and deliberation rather than vindictiveness and violence as the preferred way of dealing with differences and of living together as a human community? The Chinese character for crisis means both danger and opportunity.

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The work of biologist Humberto Maturana reminds us that “our human existence is one in which we can live in whatever world we bring about in our conversations, even if it is a world that finally destroys us as the kind of beings that we are”

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What is one question or issue that you personally care deeply about in relation to your family, your work situation, your community, your church, or any other part of your life, that, if explored with others, could make a difference to the future of that situation? Who else might you invite to engage with you in exploring that question? How might you use the Café conversation principles (whether or not you use a Café format) to support the quality of that conversation? What is the next step in your own learning about hosting and convening conversations that matter in your own spheres of influence? (Amanda’s note: good for my First Wednesday idea).

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Later, studying the armistice conditions ending the war, it became very clear that the lack of ongoing and authentic dialogue among nations created conditions for future conflict. I determined that, when I grew up, I would study ways in which these mistakes would not be repeated.

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In my contemplation and study of these questions, it became clear to me that every societal change process I knew of started with an informal conversation in which men and women—young or old—were witnessed and “heard into speech,” sharing their dreams and hopes for making a difference around something they cared about. In being truly seen and heard, people were transformed and discovered their mutual commitment to act. That small group then went on to invite other groups into the conversation and the change became more and more real.

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What if we thought of teams of people working together—either formal or informal teams—as being like individual “table conversations” in a larger Café? What if we thought about each such team interacting with other teams as being like what happens when team members rotate from one Café table to another, influencing and being influenced by each other through the web of conversations in which they are participating.

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The answer to this question lies, I believe, less in the character or talents of the individuals involved than in the quality of the questions that sit at the heart of their conversations.

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Could it be that, when left on their own in a conducive environment, people naturally gravitate toward questions that matter? That they naturally do not waste their time on things that are unimportant?

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The Breakthrough Group http://www.thebreakthroughgroup.net The Breakthrough Group is a pioneer in engaging the art and the science of storytelling, including theater, simulation, and living case studies, to stimulate catalytic conversations and organizational learning. Breakthrough collaborates with the World Café to create innovative strategic dialogues in conferences and other organizational settings.

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Conversation Cafés http://www.conversationcafe.org Conversation Cafés are dialogues hosted in cafés and other public venues for meaningful conversations about our thoughts, feelings, and actions in these new times. Using a highly effective circle process, Conversation Cafés and the World Café have partnered in linking small-group and large-group dialogue approaches.

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Fran Peavey and Crabgrass http://www.crabgrass.org Fran Peavey, founder of Crabgrass, an NGO working on social and environmental issues, is a pioneer in the art of strategic questioning, particularly in community settings. She and her colleagues offer periodic trainings in strategic questioning.

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World Café (Denmark) http://www.worldcafe.dk This site, hosted by Danish World Café pioneer, Finn Voldtofte, contains excellent information on Café hosting, conceptual pieces on dialogue and strategy, and leading edge thinking about “the magic in the middle.”

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