A Conversation Café is a 90-minute hosted conversation which is held in a public setting like a coffee shop, bookstore or library, where anyone is welcome to join. Its simple format helps people feel at ease and gives everyone who wants to a chance to speak.
The CC method was created by Vicki Robin, Susan Partnow and Habib Rose. During the summer of 2001, Habib, a natural networker, invited Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow to experiment with organizing neighborhood gatherings of “Cultural Creatives” in Seattle. The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World is a nonfiction social sciences and sociology book by sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson.
The three Seattleites were set to launch Conversation Cafés in September 2001, but changed gears after the 9-11 terror attacks took place. They immediately began hosting CCs to help people process their emotions and thoughts on what had and was happening in the country.
The Café method has since spread internationally. Conversation Café was sponsored by the New Road Map Foundation (Vicki Robin’s organization) until 2009, when stewardship of the process and network was transferred to Bob and Jacquelyn Pogue of Richmond Action Dialogues. In 2016, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation offered to steward the process and keep the CC community growing and thriving. NCDD promptly updated the CC website and created listservs and social media for the community.
Conversation Cafés do not focus on moving to action. They are not meant to replace action; they come before action. They are a place for people to gather their thoughts, find their natural allies, discover their blind spots, open their heart to the heart of ‘the other.’ As they say, all movements begin with a conversation.
Everyone who participates in a Conversation Café is asked to agree to this simple set of guidelines that set the tone of the gathering:
The process and agreements are so simple they fit on tiny “wallet cards” that hosts distribute to participants. Download and print your own wallet cards at www.conversationcafe.org/cc-wallet-cards.
The Conversation Café Process…
Conversation Café ‘hosts’ provide nametags, paper and pencil (for note taking), a centerpiece (candle, flower) and a talking object (something symbolic or just handy) that is held by the person speaking.
The host welcomes everyone, states the theme for the café, reads the agreements, sets an ending time, and calls for a moment of silence to relax, reflect and become open.
Each person speaks in turn, going around the circle once. Each person holds the talking object while they speak. During this round, everyone says their name and speaks briefly about what is on their minds regarding the theme. Anyone may pass if they don’t want to speak. Everyone is asked to express themselves fully yet succinctly, allowing time for others to speak. No feedback or response.
Now that everyone has been introduced, the group goes around the circle again. If someone wants to respond to another’s remarks, they can do so in their own turn. Each person holds the talking object. To allow more time for conversation, keep remarks brief, possibly just naming the theme or subjects you want to delve into more deeply. Again, no feedback or response.
Now the conversation opens up and people can speak in no particular order. This conversation will take up most of the time. If there is domination, contention, or lack of focus, the host may suggest that the group again use the talking object. Keep in mind the agreements.
A few minutes before the end of the Café, the host will ask everyone to go around the circle again, giving each a chance to say briefly what they are taking away from the conversation.
More about the History of Conversation Café
After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, Vicki Robin realized that Conversation Cafés could help people come together to talk about how the tragedy and its aftermath have effected them and to learn from each other how they should cope with and react to the situation.
Here’s how the website explained it:
In times of crisis, people overcome their fear of strangers. We recognize that we are all in this–whatever this is–together. We see how vulnerable we all are, citizens and leaders alike. If we are brave, we even see that something so new is happening that we don’t know how to cope. What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
To paraphrase Einstein, on September 11, everything about our world changed except our way of thinking, and thus we drift to unparalleled catastrophe…or opportunity. Which shall it be? What will turn the tide? We don’t know. But we can learn–together–the way through to a sustainable peace.
Conversation Cafés are places where this collective learning is happening.
Conversation Cafés offered the people of Seattle a way to open up instead of shutting down during a time when people felt threatened and insecure.
Perhaps public safety is as much a matter of us sustaining the compassion and caring that happened in the weeks following September 11 as it is about beefing up surveillance and the military. If any of this is true, then Conversation Cafés have much to offer. Because they happen in public settings, people who don’t normally talk to one another can come together to share their thoughts and feelings in a spirit of respect. One person’s view, expressed without a need to convince, could open another person’s eyes. It could soften preconceptions. And being heard without judgment allows each person to feel understood. Good conversation can change the world. In this case, talk is not cheap–it is the most precious thing we can do.
Promoting Conversation Cafés
Conversation Cafés have met with so much success, in part, because of Vicki Robin’s unique ability to produce fun, welcoming sound bytes and slogans that give the Cafés an upbeat, high-energy feel. Here are some of the great tidbits she used on the website, on posters and in press releases.
Further Resources on Conversation Café