The Art of Hosting

From the emaillist, summer '12:

Hello my friends,

Though I’ve been part of hosting many cafes through the years, I am, of course, still learning.

I've had the chance to be a participant in other people’s cafes of late and found some variations from the pattern I've typically used.  I'm pretty consistent in using the same question for two rounds, followed by a synthesizing question in the third round, and ending with a harvest of the room.

In some of the cafes I experienced recently, the host used different questions every round.  And more: did a harvest of the room after every round.

I find much of the magic of the World Café is the surprise of discovering that a different table was having a similar or related conversation to the one that I was already in. I believe that the feeling of being a fractal in a larger conversation both strengthens the sense of and trust in community.  And I find that the process causes a rapid synthesis of ideas.  A collective sense of the room emerges with remarkable speed and clarity.


So I’m wondering about a couple things:

1.  What is the impact of using different questions in every round?  Do you find that it affects the fractal nature of the conversations?  (I felt it did.)  What are the benefits of doing this -- when would you do so?  When not?

2.  How does the harvest between rounds affect the experience?  (I found it an interruption, pulling me out of the flow I was in.)  Again, I am sure there are times when it's a great thing to do.  When would you do it?  When would you not?

My questions are in part because I’ll be working with MSOD students next week.  My impression is that most of them have never experienced a World Café.  I want to bring them a wider understanding than I have at the moment.  I’d like to bring your wisdom into the room.  

So your thoughts and ideas are appreciated!  And I’ll let you know how it goes.



Peggy Holman


Hi Peggy,

My friend Robert used to say that the best answer for most questions was "it all depends." And that's how this strikes me.  So this is really a question about purpose and flow in the cafe.  If I want to go deeper in a particular field, I'll keep the same questions in subsequent rounds.  If I want to go more broadly to see more of the field, I'll use different questions.  If I sense that a questions has exhausted itself, I'll switch, whatever the plan was.  When it feels like the room would benefit from making what's visible at the subsystem level visible to the whole, I'll do a harvesting.  When I want to make sure the next round is informed by what's happened within the whole field of the prior round, I'll do a harvesting.
Not much wisdom.  Just continuing to putter along…
Waving from the other side of the mountains,
Bob Stilger
Hi there,
I've hosted hundreds of World Cafe's over the years and have found that clients, due to "time and wanting to get as much in as possible while they have folks in the room" often push for multiple questions - one new question per round.  Whenever I can, I really push back and discourage it.  Although the process is still interesting and fun for participants and they still learn and collaborate, I find that it doesn't allow the depth and deeper understanding that can unfold when you're patient with the question.
I often quote Rilke (see at end) when setting up the World Cafe and let them know at the beginning that it might even feel uncomfortable to do more than one round on the same question as we're so used to "fixing, doing and moving into action" we don't get the luxury of exercising our inquiry and curiosity muscles very often anymore.  This resonates with folks.  I also tease them and say, "if you find yourself not coming up with much after round 1, this is a good thing!  Don't reach for your Blackberry. Notice that you want to grab your phone and ask, "what is that about?"  Sit in the discomfort and be OK with silence for a bit - in yourself and others - and start practicing inquiry to get at the question from other angles, to inquire into others thinking.
For my corporate clients, once they have experienced the cafe in its fullness, they have a natural tendency, after being pleased with the results of the first one, to want to get 3 times more out of it if we asked 3 times the amount of questions! I applaud their enthusiasm and walk them through the integrity and beauty of the process.
That being said, sometimes I still have to do multiple questions and I go with it as it's still better to experience that than a stuffy old method.... but I do what I can to stick to one question.
(in large groups - 100 or over, I have experimented with 3 different color table cloths in the room - you stick with the same color through out which is the same question then, but each color represents a different question.  That way you get three questions worked on, but the color group sticks with the same question.  That is quite effective for large groups.)
...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Hope this helps a bit from one little perspective from Chicago....
Be well,
Tina DeSalvo

I could not say it any better Bob!

Peggy, please tell your students to think very good and well about harvesting - doing World Café or other methodologies. Sometimes the purpose of a café with stakeholders is to come up/write a strategic document - or similar kind of thing - then building the questions on each other is a very good thing to do; but then you need to think upfront what kind of harvest is useful (also in between rounds and on paper, next to share some and/or have a visual harvester) and needed to make the purpose met.

Adding to Bob's line: "If I want to go more broadly to see more of the field" - sometimes the purpose of the Café is that the field sees itself - like the first time a group of people sharing some purpose coming together; then different moments of shared harvest is meaningful.

Indeed, it all depends!
With love,
Ria Baeck

Many thanks for the wise answers.  You've given me a deeper understanding of useful distinctions when going for depth (fewer questions) and breadth (more questions) as well when an interim harvest might be of service.

Ria -- thanks for the reminder on harvesting.  I have tracked down a graphic recorder to join us for the session so that the class gets as classic an experience as possible.
Peggy Holman
Hi again,

Love the beauty and invitation of what you said, Ria:
sometimes  "the purpose of the Café is that the field sees itself."
 Yes, yes, yes.  That is the hunger, the possibility.

TIna, I hear you.  I can't even begin to count the number of times I've invited people to sit in the silence, the stillness.  And I know it rarely happens unless there is already present a high level of connectedness and/or a level of competence in working with silence.  I'll add to your Rilke quote my favorite from Stephen Mitchell's 2006 translation of the Tao de Ching, Chapter 15:

Tao Te Ching #15

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn't seek fufillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things

-- translated by Stephen Mitchell (2006)

Bob Stilger
I love this thread...
And I love and appreciate each of you who have made such fabulous contributions to the evolution and deepening of World Cafe practice over the years... It's a joy to be part of this community. 
This is quite a remarkable quote, Bob. Thank you.
I am especially moved by these lines: 
Do you have the patience to wait 
till your mud settles and the water is clear? 
Can you remain unmoving 
till the right action arises by itself?  
Amy Lenzo

Hi all,

I would offer that not every World Café has to be three rounds – whether using one question or three questions. I was recently part of a team that co-hosted a World Café that had four rounds and four questions and the dialogue was so rich, deep and rewarding that we could have extended the time for each round if it had been workable. The overall theme of the Café was “Leading and Living our Tribal Values with Intention in Relationships with the World. Community, Nature, Self.”

Question one was “How do I live my tribal values in the world?”

Question two was “How does nature inspire my tribal values?”

Question three was “How do I live my tribal values in y community?”

And question four was “How do I live my tribal values in myself?” It was a deep privilege to sit in the energetic field in the room.



jerry nagel

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