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Book Review: The World Café
Hassan Masum, 26 Jun 06

WorldCafe.jpg The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations that Matter is a conversation about deep conversations; a meditation on how to structure and share meetings that matter. The book discusses the World Café process, one of a family of dialogue tools for collaborative problem-solving, collective understanding, and social change.

...authentic conversation is our human way of thinking together. It has been since our earliest days, when our ancestors gathered around fires in council to resolve differences and discover ways to confront dangers to their survival.
Council was one of the earliest structures used to focus the work of thinking together in conversation. The World Café stories in this book offer another intentional conversational structure for thinking together - one based on simple design principles that can enhance our capacities to think more holistically, embrace diverse perspectives, and create actionable knowledge across traditional boundaries.

So what is a World Café?

In a nutshell, it's a series of interlocking small-group conversations on questions that matter. Participants split up into groups of four, and talk through the question(s) at hand for roughly half an hour. Sketching, doodling, and taking notes on your table is encouraged, to leave seed material for the next round. After the half hour is up, most of the people move on to a new table - but one "table host" stays behind, who (along with doodles left behind) provides a bridge between the old and new groups. Repeat, discuss, ponder, bond.

Sounds simple? At one level, it is - no complex tools are required, and the basic process is easy enough to describe. But getting a group of people together is relatively easy. Getting them to talk deeply is hard, and it's more than a matter of goodwill - drawing forth meaning, providing a space where diverse opinions are respected, and making the whole process fun are skills which come with experience and insight.

In his wonderful book The Great Good Place (1989), sociologist Ray Oldenburg focuses on the importance of informal gathering places for the development of innovative ideas, democratic practice, and community life throughout history...According to Oldenburg, the third place is a locale that exists apart from the "womb" of private family space and the "rat race" of the workaday world. Such places - including cafes - provide neutral ground where people of diverse perspectives and backgrounds can come together in an inclusive way. They offer hospitality. They are upbeat, and at times, playful...As Jaida N'ha Sandra puts it in The Joy of Conversation (1997), a fascinating history of salons and their role in social innovation, the point of creating hospitable space is to encourage the quality of conversation for which salons have become famous as incubators for new thinking.
My main reservation about the book is that it talks more about the value of authentic conversation than about practical blueprints for creating such conversations. This is not a how-to manual.

That being said, there are many practical elements in the book, including a handy World Café Hosting Guide which summarizes how to make the process work (a concise version is online). The Related Resources and Bibliography are also useful, as is the World Café web site.

There's a deeper lesson here on focus vs effectiveness. Most of us have felt frustrated at slow group discussions, and many meetings really do waste time. But when you're privileged to be with a group of highly competent people who genuinely care about solving the issues at hand, stepping back and listening deeply can teach you many lessons: of knowledge, of respect, of seeing through the eyes of friends and peers, of developing the patience to let a more complex picture of the truth emerge, and of the hopes, fears, goals, and inner beauty of others and yourself.

And at a very practical level, scaling up conversations and collaborative efforts past small, tightly-knit groups is a key challenge for effectively working together as citizens, especially as volunteers not subject to a command-and-control hierarchy. Used well, systems like World Café and Open Space Technology can reliably increase group productivity - and be immensely enjoyable in the bargain.

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