The World Cafe: Workshop Facilitation Method, Principles and Etiquette

The World Cafe - The Right Questions facilitation
Some great ideas generated by World Cafe – servantofchaos via Flickr

The World Café Workshop, Meeting and Facilitation Method and Principles

The World Cafe workshop methodology fosters an environment that develops good conversations. Similarly to the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe, the approach is designed to get authentic dialogues started. This encourages the sharing of ideas in a relaxed, informal and creative atmosphere.

The World Cafe system is facilitator-led and is based upon a specific method and seven design principles. By applying this tried and tested method, there is an excellent chance of producing innovative ideas and sharing knowledge that can be put into practice.

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Robin Williams

When run properly, with the right balance of informality and structure, the World Cafe is a very effective way of facilitating a workshop. It can also produce a rich and innovative output.

Here is the method, the seven design principles and the etiquette for The World Cafe system:

The World Café Method

To organise and facilitate a World Cafe workshop follow these steps:

1. Create the Setting

Firstly you need to create a “special” environment.  This is most often modelled after a café; for example, small round tables covered with a tablecloth (preferably that can be drawn/written upon). In addition, you can then add some extra paper and post-it notes, coloured pens, and perhaps a point of interest such as a vase of flowers.

You can also use an optional “talking stick/spoon” item if you want to control contributions. By agreeing that only people holding the spoon can talk, and by sharing the spoon around equally, everyone gets to contribute without interruption. Ideally, there should be four chairs at each table. Although it is possible to have more it can become harder to facilitate.  It is likely to be more formal and harder for everyone to contribute if there are more than six or seven seats.

2. Welcome and Introduction

The overall host/facilitator begins with a warm welcome and an introduction to the World Café process.  They set the context, share the Cafe Etiquette, and put participants at ease.

3. Small Group Rounds

The process begins with the first of three or more rounds. These rounds of conversation happen for each of the small groups seated around a table.  These can last for twenty to thirty minutes each.

Participants are encouraged to write, doodle and draw key ideas on their tablecloths.  They can also note key ideas on large index cards, post-it notes or placemats in the centre of the group.

At the end of the time, the overall facilitator gets each member of the group to move to a different new table. They may or may not choose to leave one person as the “table host” for the next round.

Next, the table host welcomes the new guests and briefly shares the main ideas, themes and questions of the initial conversation. They then encourage guests to link and connect ideas coming from their previous table conversations; listening carefully and building on each other’s contributions.

By providing opportunities for people to move in several rounds of conversation, ideas, questions, and themes begin to link and connect. As a result, this helps to develop a broad and divergent discussion of each topic.

4. Questions

Each round is prefaced with a question designed for the specific context and desired purpose of the session. Therefore, the questions or issues that are chosen for each table should genuinely matter to the life, work or community that participants are engaged in. Consequently, the same questions can be used for more than one round, or questions can be built upon each other to focus the conversation or guide its direction onwards.

5. Harvest

Next individuals are invited to share insights or other results from their conversations. This is done with the rest of the larger group.  This can happen after the small groups and/or in between rounds, as desired.

This period of sharing discoveries is initiated so those insights can be highlighted to the whole group. Furthermore, these whole group conversations help in the cross-fertilization of ideas.  In this way patterns are then identified, collective knowledge grows, and new possibilities for action emerge.

These results are reflected visually in a variety of ways, most often using graphic recorders in the front of the room.

After the last round of conversation, people can return to their home (original) tables to synthesize their discoveries. Or, they may continue travelling to new tables, leaving the same or a new host at the table. Sometimes, after the last planned round, the facilitator may choose to introduce a new question that helps to deepen the exploration for a final round of conversation.

How to Run a World Cafe Workshop Video – YouTube

The World Cafe Design Principles

These are the principle behind The World Cafe workshop:

  1. Clarify the Context: It is important to clarify the purpose and broad parameters within which the dialogue will unfold.
  2. Create Hospitable Space: Ensure the welcoming environment and psychological safety that nurtures personal safety and mutual respect.
  3. Explore Questions That Matter: Make sure you focus the collective attention on powerful questions that attract collaborative engagement.
  4. Encourage Each Person’s Contribution: Enliven the relationship between the “me” and the “we” by inviting full participation and mutual interaction.
  5. Cross-pollinate and Connect Diverse Perspectives: Intentionally increase the diversity and density of connections between perspectives while retaining a common focus on core questions.
  6. Listen Together for Patterns, Insights, and Deeper Questions: Vitally, encourage shared attention in ways that nurture coherence of thought without losing individual contributions.
  7. Harvest and Share Collective Discoveries: Make collective knowledge and insight visible and actionable.

The World Cafe Etiquette

In addition to the design principles there are some simple rules of etiquette that help to get the most from a World Café workshop:

  1. Focus on What Matters
  2. Contribute Your Thinking
  3. Speak Your Mind and Heart
  4. Listen to Understand
  5. Link and Connect Ideas
  6. Listen Together for Insights and Deeper Questions (Playing, Doodling, Drawing are all encouraged!)
  7. Have Fun!

In my experience the bit that is most important (and people most struggle with) is the listening part. If people are bursting to share their ideas then they often find it hard to listen properly!  If you would like to read more about effective listening then check out my post entitled Are You Really Listening?

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin

Other Workshop Facilitation Methods

If you are looking for other innovative and effective ways of facilitating meetings and workshops then I can recommend Nancy Kline’s book, More Time To Think.  In the book Nancy explains how to foster a Thinking Environment for individuals and groups in a way that values and captures their best thinking.

Want to Find a Facilitator?

If you want to find a professional facilitator to help with running your workshop please do drop me a line by emailing or by filling in the form after clicking on Contact

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The World Cafe (2018)

Kline, N (2009) More Time to Think, London: Fisher King

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