Conversation Cafe Liberating Structures: Step-by-step process

The Conversation Cafe is a beautiful Liberating Structure that works perfectly fine online. It is an inclusive approach to giving voice to everyone by using a talking object and following a pattern of speaking in turns. This creates a relaxed atmosphere and serenity at the same time.

I love doing Conversation Cafes. I like the slower rhythm and pace, the weaving of thoughts and ideas, and the quality of listening. I enjoy that I hear everyone contributing and that everyone has a say without me as a facilitator guiding this. The Conversation Cafe process takes care of this. Sometimes magic can happen. So far, I always walked away from a Conversation Cafe with some nuggets of insights. Sometimes with a quote from someone, sometimes I felt touched, and sometimes something shifted in me. I hardly ever left with empty hands.

A Conversation Cafe is easy to organise in the virtual space, you don’t need a lot. A visual slide explaining the sequence of steps could be handy to promote self-facilitation. If the group is larger than 5-7 people you need to create breakout rooms. In the beginning, you introduce the process and say a few words about the quality of listening and talking. Invite people to grab an object that serves as a talking object. For first-timers this can be a bit strange, normally they figure out pretty fast how handy the talking object is. And that it even can be magic, when people start talking to the whole group and listen with attention.

How it works online

First round: 1’ per person, go around the circle with a talking object (see tip below on how to establish an online circle). You can always let the talking object pass if you are not ready yet to speak; it will come back. Each person shares what she or he is thinking, feeling, or doing about the theme, issue or question.

Second round:  1 ’per person, with a talking object, go around the circle to share thoughts after having listened to everybody.

Third round: 15-30 mins, open conversation with a talking object, making sense of what was said and reflecting together.

Fourth round: 5-20 mins. sharing takeaways and reflecting on the experience from the Conversation Café through the chat. Including the chat is a valuable option when you have multiple parallel Conversation Cafes, sharing in the chat gives the whole group a sense of what was discussed in the other groups.

Tip: There is one issue you have to give some thought to beforehand. The order of the taking turns in the first two steps. In a face-to-face setting you would follow the logic of the circle. This natural logic is missing in the virtual space (the arrangement of the people on the screens looks different on each individual screen). So, you have to find a way to establish the order. This is worth the effort and can even be fun in the case of using the imaginary ball. One person starts throwing an imaginary ball at someone from the group saying this person’s name. Then that person catches the ball and throws the ball to the next person saying this person’s name. This will be the order; people need to remember from whom they received the talking object and to whom they passed it. Other options to create a sense of a circle: Ask everyone to add her/ his name to the chat, the order of the names appearing in the chat box is your circle. Or prepare a visual slide and invite everyone to add her/ his name. Everyone knows who comes before and after them.

There are other conversation processes like Unhurried Conversation, Circle Practice, Knowledge Cafe or Bohm Dialogue the Conversation Cafe is based on. Maybe the Conversation Cafe is time-wise the ‘fastest’ conversation cafe process. You can have meaningful group reflections in 30-50 minutes.

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