A quick Google search on “World Café” turns up, in addition to information about NPR’s blog on Essential and Emerging Artists, such winning and approachable phrases as “the World Café is a powerful social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter, offering an effective antidote to the fast-paced fragmentation and lack of connection in today’s world.” Or, “A Café Conversation is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes.”
Right. Because that’s the kind of thing normal people say on normal days.
At CURE, we like to think about it a little differently. Yes, a World Café conversation is all of those flowery things mentioned above, but more simply, it’s a way to talk honestly with people you don’t know about things that are important to you. World Cafés strike the balance between a party with a lot of painful mingling and a really high-powered and exhausting presentation series. They take the small talk out of the mingling and the “data download” experience out of the presentations, and the net result is a chance to learn with a variety of people through sharing personal experiences and knowledge. It’s both fun and intellectually stimulating; plus it’s a great way to meet people.
Structure of a World Café
The first thing you should notice when you walk into a room set up for a World Café is that it feels welcoming. Many practitioners even suggest putting flowers on the tables–anything to make the space look more like a café or coffee shop where you would have long conversations with old friends and less like a spare conference room in an office building. There should be several tables with seats for four at each. At the table you will find markers, large sheets of butcher paper, and a card with the Café Etiquette.
Once you take a seat, hopefully with three people you don’t know very well, the World Café facilitator should then introduce the basic principles of a World Café conversation. The facilitator will also ask one person at each table to volunteer to be the table host: the host is primarily responsible for ensuring that all voices are heard and that thoughts are recorded as the conversation takes off. Then the facilitator will introduce the first question, and you will turn to the three other people at your table, introduce yourself, and begin to discuss the question at hand. While you converse, you are encouraged to doodle, write, or diagram on the butcher paper, thus creating a record of the ideas and experiences shared at your table.
After 20 minutes, the facilitator will gently end the conversations in the room, and while the table host will stay at the table, the other three will get up, move around and sit down again at another table with three new faces. The facilitator will introduce a second question that builds upon the first, and the conversations will begin again. This time, the table host will share the main ideas and themes that came up in the previous round to lay a framework for the new question.
This cycle is repeated, usually three times, and followed by a “harvest” round with the whole group and led by the facilitator. During the harvest, the goal is to seek patterns and consistencies that emerge: these shared ideas are considered the collective intelligence of the room. Thus a World Café allows a group of people to come together, share ideas, and develop solutions that are greater and more creative than any one person could develop alone.