Conversation Cafes

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Definition

Conversation Cafes are openly hosted conversations in local coffee shops, but are also widely entertained inside, but not limited to, restaurants, conference rooms, churches, and classrooms. This participatory method was intentionally designed in efforts to gather friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers to exchange something more than "small talk" on a regular basis. The agenda is set in hopes to create stimulating conversations among a diverse set of minds who have a common goal to not only express their own preferences, but to further explore, develop, and possibly rehabilitate their own opinions through the engagement with others in their community. [1]

Conversation Cafes aim to foster a society that actively engages in important social topics, which are newly selected for each gathering, by creating a temporary environment that promotes--through mild facilitation--certain conversational etiquette, including open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, and brevity. [1] The project addresses the need to escape the crippling dangers of a repressive society, and attempts to increase social intelligence through the construction of social capital, thus generating social engagement. [2] From this practice of the "Socratic tradition" of respectful dialogue, these Conversation Cafes aspire to build a more enlightened--and thus wiser--democracy. The minimal, simplistic, and undemanding structure of its agenda allows for this hosted event to seem feasible for anyone and everyone to become a part of the small group, transforming interpersonal communication from trivial topics to conversations that matter. The goal is not to refine answers, pick out flaws, and decide on a list of solutions from a pool of ideas, but rather to listen respectfully, cultivate individual ideas and vocalize them, and suspend judgements about others in the process.

Conversation Cafes are related to methods like The World Cafe, Socratic Cafés, and Kitchen Table Conversations.

Process

The process of Conversation Cafes follows a conventional outline. In its inception, hosts assemble up to 10 people and generally have a topic or theme selected prior to the event. As a part of the introduction, the host explains the Conversation Cafe agreements, which promote respect, suspends judgment, seeks understanding and new insights rather than persuasion, sharing of personal testimonies and honesty. [1] Once the conversational maxims are pledged to be adhered to by all participants, the host explains the step-by-step process of what is about to occur in the following 60-90 minutes. Furthermore, a "Talking Object" is presented, which permits only the speaker who has the Talking Object in hand to present their views, and is then passed along the circle in a timely manner (individuals are allowed to "pass" and not say anything). The Talking Object can be any miscellaneous item.

Once the rules and goals of the event are unanimously understood among all participants, the host should pass out pencils and paper/index cards for people to jot down their thoughts. The conversation begins with introductions and then proceeds into round 1, where each person briefly addresses the topic at hand with no reciprocated feedback from others, using the Talking Object. Then, round 2 takes place as the Talking Object is still in a motion, with each individual further explaining in explicit detail their prior comments and thoughts, or any fresh insights they had arrived at since then. At the end of the facilitated rounds using the Talking Object, the host opens up the floor to free dialogue. At this time, groups participate in open, spirited conversation, and the Talking Object is only implemented to control contention, domination, or to redirect tangent conversations that are far from the topic at hand. To conclude, the last 5-10 minutes before the ending time is devoted to the final round, which reintroduces the Talking Object, as each person takes a moment to reflect and briefly state how their prior ways of thinking had changed, refined, or strengthened. [2]

While Conversation Cafes have this general skeletal outline of communication, there are three, narrowly defined types of conversations that can occur in response to unique circumstances: Cafe Lite (less than 45 minutes), Instant Cafe (spontaneous), and Super Cafe (large events).[1]

History

The inception of Conversation Cafes took place in the summer of 2001, in the city of Seattle, Washington. The idea was conceived by author Vicki Robin and her friends, Susan Partnow and Habib Rose. Living with the mantra that more spontaneous, casual public dialogue would better mold the critical minds that make up our democracy all the while simultaneously fostering friendly relations, each of the three Seattle women sat in a different cafe every week and began conversations with neighboring customers on important matters. Officially, on September 10, 2001, what began as a simple fostering of coffee house meetings for casual yet stimulating discussions on current issues amongst customers continued on into what is now recognized as Conversation Cafes.

From that moment in history, this method of participatory deliberation spread throughout the city of Seattle and ultimately caught on in seventy cities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. New Road Map Foundation funded the project from its primordial stages, with the Foundation for Global Community and Bob and Jacquelyn Pogue's foundation contributing large sums as well. [1]

The invention of "Conversation Week" premiered soon after, where all Conversation Cafes across the world pondered over the same topic for one week each year. Through this global communication and exchange of ideas, a sense of patriotic unity emerged. Co-founders Vicki and Susan transferred the project to Bob and Jacquelyn Pogue, who are now the head stewards of the online Conversation Cafe website. [1]

Case Studies

Community X-Change:

From 2005 to 2006, this case study that took place in the United Kingdom, analyzed the beginnings of a series of workshops where members of the public, scientists, and policy makers came together to discuss relevant issues on science. [2] This new method for dialogue provided an isolated area of time and space in which these individuals could converse about ideas for possible actions concerning the policy of climate change.

Participants were carefully selected in order to ensure a diverse range of views, and they met on a regular basis to talk about the climate change with regards to other science and technology issues. A rigor structure was provided to guide the discussions of the group. Individuals of the study attended an interactive video report at the 2006 BA Festival of Science in Norwich. [2]

As for the results of the study, a majority of the members had genuinely expected that something was going to be produced from their efficient process of discourse, and that the ideas generated would be presented to decision-makers. By creating a safe, constructive space for scientists and citizens to communicate, the two compartmentalized groups found a common language to relate with. More specifically, scientists overcame their fears of a two-way engagement with the public individuals. [2]

Evaluation

The minimal cost and necessities to host a Conversation Cafe makes it an appealing and inviting method of deliberation since all that is needed is an open, public space and a willing individual to host the event. [3] Other strengths regard its informality, flexibility, and its encouragement to actively listen, learn, and share different views. Weaknesses include its lack of structure and rigor, and that the activity does not lead to any particular goal except accomplishing the social deed of conversation and dialogue. [4]

In terms of its evaluation as a deliberative process, the overall analytic process of deliberation is moderately to highly successful. The introduction phase allows the time and encourages individuals to discuss personal and emotional experiences, especially those attending with not much prior legal background information regarding the topics at hand. With the opening time of silence to digest the announced topic, participants are encouraged to reflect on their own values before the speaking portion of the event begins. Beyond that, the use of the Talking Object not only regulates equal distribution of speaking time, but it also allows for those who are listening to reflect on the communicated values they hear as well as their own, as they wait for their turn to speak. Since the main goal of Conversation Cafes is to produce a free flow of ideas, suspending own opinions to bring alternative views that are often eclipsed from our own view to light, this method ideally works to generate a range of different ideas and possibilities. Furthermore, as the last stage of the method is a time where each individual reflects and has one minute to summarize their new insights, the development of refined judgments in light of what was said is the ultimate if not only goal of this deliberative method.

In terms of the overall social process of deliberation, it is also fairly successful. To begin, the implementation of a Talking Object strictly ensures a balanced discussion in which no one person is denied the opportunity to speak. Each turn is evenly distributed by time. The middle round of open discussion allows for members to respond to other comments, as well as ask clarifying questions, listening carefully to each voice even in disagreement since there is no pressure to reach a consensus. The thoroughly constructed skeletal outline of the conversation leaves no room for disrespectful behaviors, but if any were to be exchanged, the presence of a host would regulate the matter. Therefore, the overall social process set in these coffee houses are cooperative and considerate in regards to each member of the small group.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 http://www.conversationcafe.org/default.htm Welcome to Conversation Cafe
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 http://www.peopleandparticipation.net/display/Methods/Conversation+Cafes People and Participation
  3. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=FUWNYLxbiZoC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=conversation+cafe&ots=NQDZ4PTL6z&sig=DK5bErXPRwiR3PxibzDli_Tj_JQ#v=onepage&q=conversation%20cafe&f=false. Brown, Juanita & David Isaacs. "The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter”
  4. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/23/ Buckner, K., Laurier, E., and Whyte, A. (2001). "An Ethnography of a Neighbourhood Café: Informality, Table Arrangements and Background Noise." Journal of Mundane Behaviour, 2 (2). pp. 195-232. ISSN

Secondary Literature

Galloway, K. & S. Rabinowitz. (1992). "Welcome To 'Electronic Cafe International': A Nice Place For Hot Coffee, Iced Tea, & Virtual Space." Cyber Arts. Miller Freedman, Inc., San Francisco: California. 10 pages. [1]

Laurier, E., Whyte, A. and Buckner, K. (2001). "An Ethnography of a Neighbourhood Café: Informality, Table Arrangements and Background Noise. Journal of Mundane Behaviour," 2 (2). pp. 195-232. ISSN 1529-3041. [2]

Links

[3] Community Action Dialogues

[4] National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation

[5] The World Cafe

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