Can We Talk?

Conversation Cafés Show Us How
Conversation week

is March 23-29, 2009

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See expanded guidelines to start your own Conversation Café.

I didn't ask anyone if I could start Conversation Cafés. There was no one to ask. No one is in charge of conversations in cafés or at bus stops or in grocery lines. The potential for rich, fun, meaningful, enlivening conversations in such locations was glaringly evident to me, so two Seattle friends and I set out to develop a way that diverse strangers and neighbors could gather in cafés to talk about things of common interest and concern—culture, politics, philosophy, and so on. We each stationed ourselves weekly at a café in our neighborhoods, inviting other café customers, friends, and the general public to talk. We built it—and they came. In six months there were two dozen Seattle locations. In six years the method has spread around the world.

Conversation Cafés are intended to restore something missing from our culture; to nudge us towards the classic American values of generosity, safety, friendliness, creativity, pragmatic decision making—in short, democracy.

I envisioned intimate, reflective conversations that increased participants' capacity to engage in respectful and inquisitive conversations at home, work, and in social situations. Could a “culture of conversation” be built, or coaxed into being? To make this technique widely available, we asked ourselves: “What is the minimum structure that will allow strangers to shift from small talk to big talk—that is, talk about things that really matter?”

The resulting Conversation Café agreement sounds a bit like what one should have learned in kindergarten about getting along with other kids. They are guidelines for group settings that hold a space for freedom for all, not a free-for-all:


Open-mindedness: Listen to and respect all points of view.

Acceptance: Suspend judgment as best you can.

Curiosity: Seek to understand rather than persuade.

Discovery: Question assumptions, look for new insights.

Sincerity: Speak what has personal heart and meaning.

Brevity: Go for honesty and depth, but don't go on and on.


I believe that there is a freedom that can come in community. This freedom involves holding with tenderness your frightened, belligerent self while working with others, however difficult they might be, on something you care about. By staying with—neither closing up nor lashing out—you embrace the task of belonging. Such freedom-in-community comes as you act together to make your family, neighborhood, workplace, and world more harmonious and lively.

Conversation Café hosts are social liberators—and the function can go far beyond a small table in a coffee shop. “If you want to change the world, throw a better party.” That's my friend Rick Ingrasci's motto. Social freedom isn't a wild party. It's a better party, a way to gather with others that leaves everyone enlivened and inspired, and free to keep participating.

Vicki Robin wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Vicki co-wrote Your Money Or Your Life. Conversation Cafés host an annual Conversation Week, when circles convene worldwide to talk about the most important questions of our times. See for the 2008 Conversation Week.

Expanded guidelines for conversation cafes.

Photo of Vicki Robin
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