Conversation Café

Engage everyone in making sense of profound challenges

Conversation Café cover image
Team Facilitation

The Conversation Café allows for an unlimited number of people to quickly share their thoughts about a specific subject and steers the group towards a shared understanding of the issue. It works best for complex, difficult, or painful situations as it lays the ground work for being able to move on. A single conversation café session takes from 35 minutes to one hour.

  • Time needed: 35-60 minutes
  • Number of Participants: 3 to unlimited
  • Inclusion: All participants are included and have an equal opportunity to contribute.

You can include and engage any number of people in making sense of confusing or shocking events and laying the ground for new strategies to emerge. The format of the Conversation Café helps people have calm and profound conversations in which there is less debating and arguing, and more listening. Sitting in a circle with a simple set of agreements and a talking object, small groups will engage in rounds of dialogue with little or no unproductive conflict. As the meaning of their challenge pops into focus, a consensual hunch is formed that will release their capacity for new action.


  • Form an unlimited number of 5-7 groups, typically chairs around small tables.
  • Add one talking object (e.g., talking stick, stone, or art object) per table.
  • Markers and one or two pieces of flip-chart paper per table are optional.
  • Participants of each table should be from a mixed background, to bring disparate points of view to each table discussion.
  • One participant at each table will volunteer to act as the host. The host is a full participant whose role is to gently intervene only when a participant visibly fails to observe one of the six agreements.
  • One session facilitator. The facilitator should explain the mechanics of the session, state the theme of the conversation, keep the timing of the rounds, and to indicate what tasks should be completed.


There are four timed rounds of conversation at every table. The facilitator will keep the time for all groups simultaneously by keeping a visible timer.


The facilitator invites all the participants to gather in small groups (to listen to one another's thoughts and reflect together on a shared challenge). Then s/he states the theme of the conversation, usually in the form of a question and explains there will be four rounds of conversation at every table, two first rounds using a talking object, the third one as open conversation, and a final round with the talking object - giving the duration of each round. The six Conversation Café agreements are read and all participants must agree to abide by them (see attached file). The facilitator requests one participant at each table to volunteer as the host of that table.

Round 1

During the first round the holder of the talking object speaks without interruption and the others are invited to listen. Each person shares what he or she is thinking, feeling, or doing about the theme or topic, with a time limit of 1 minute per person. Each speaker should make an honest point that has personal heart and meaning without going on and on, and has the option to pass the talking object to any other participant at any time. The host may use visual cues to remind the speaker to keep it concise and to pass the talking object once the point has been made. Round one should allow enough time for every participant at each table to share their thoughts.

Having gone one round through each participant at the table, all individuals have gotten new perspectives on the topic at hand. This serves to spark new thoughts in each persons head.

Round 2

Formatted like the first round, where each participant shares their thoughts and feelings after having listened to everybody at the table. The time limit for each speaker remains at 1 minute per person.

This round allows individuals to share their new perspective on the topic after having listened to other peoples opinions. It helps each person digest the issue and get a more rounded understanding of how this can impact them as an individual.

Round 3

Open conversation (using the talking object is optional) within each table. The time limit for this round is 20-40 minutes, depending on the depth of the issue. This round could contain a Graphic Recording activity, where the table participants are encouraged to convert their insights into visual form (flip-chart and markers at each table is required for this activity).

This round allows participants to vent all the energy they have collected from the first two rounds of listening. Here is where new perspectives solidify, and start to become the "new normal" for each individual.

Round 4

Using the talking object, once again one person speaks at a time. This time they share their key learnings throughout the session, keeping each talk to 2 minutes per person.

Now that each individual has listened and spoken (so they can make conclusions themselves), it is time to collect the key takeaways. This round is one of summarization of what has been learned - the key insights they have collected in this session.


An optional follow-up round can be for the host of each table to summarize the key insights of their table and share with the rest of the group. If a graphical recording was used, it can be showcased during the summary. Otherwise the host of each table should keep the key takeaways to three items (this could be identified by a dot voting conducted at the end of round 4 at each table).


  • Suspend judgement as best as you can.
  • Respect one another.
  • Seek to understand rather than persuade.
  • Invite and honor diverse opinions.
  • Speak what personal heart and meaning.
  • Go for honesty and depth without going on and on.


  • Make sense of a complex, difficult, or painful situation and lay the ground for being able to move on
  • Generate new ideas and momentum for innovation
  • Build shared understanding of how people develop different perspectives and ideas
  • Avoid arguments based on lack of understanding
  • Build trust and reduce fear with an opportunity for catharsis
  • Help participants appreciate that conversation involves talking and listening

Tips and Traps

  • Always use the talking object: they make the difference
  • Have the host or participants reread the six agreements before starting the first round
  • Do not assign tasks: there should be no intention that the dialogue will directly lead to action
  • Host the dialogue like a dinner party, encouraging everyone to contribute while keeping the conversation open-ended and spontaneous
  • Use Wicked Questions to deepen conversation
  • If there is a problem, ask, “Are we following our agreements?”
  • Encourage people to speak their mind
  • Encourage quiet people to talk
  • Select talking objects that may have symbolic meaning for participants
  • Encourage participants to draw or record insights on the flip-chart “tablecloth”
  • Learn more from Vicki Robin and friends, who created the Conversation Café for use in communities @

Riffs and Variations

  • All participants but one at each table can move to different tables every 20 minutes World-Café style (see for more information).
  • Link to Graphic Recording. Place flip-chart paper on each table to collect insights from each group. Encourage drawing and playful exploration.
  • To move into action, string together with W3 (What, So What, Now What?), 15% Solutions, Design StoryBoards, User Experience Fishbowl, or Open Space.


  • For making sense of and start recovering from a major setback or shock in the market or operating environment (e.g., first used in US communities after 9/11)
  • For exploring a new topic or trend that is not well understood
  • For handling a topic where there will be strong feelings expressed
  • For reflecting after a major change: What does it mean? What assumptions can we make? What conclusions make sense? What can we now believe?

Liberating Structure developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. Inspired by and adapted from Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow, codevelopers of Conversation Cafés.
Created on May 03, 2020 10:51,
last edited on