Conversation Café :: Guidelines

The conversation café agreements sound a bit like what one should have learned in kindergarten about getting along with the other kids. They are guidelines for participating with others in group settings so there’s freedom for all, not a free-for-all.


Read how Vicki Robin "invented" the Conversation Café.



Listen to and respect all points of view.

Now who is going to admit to being closed-minded? We all like to think of ourselves as tolerant, but our minds are veritable pachinko machines of barriers to hearing other people, with lights and bells going off every time some hot topic or sore subject is touched. Being open-minded isn't just being nice or forbearing. It's far more radical–and freeing. It's turning off the Pachinko machine enough to actually hear something new from someone other than your own reactive mind. The purpose of the Cafés–and perhaps the purpose of existence–is not just to survive but learn and grow. We aren't sitting there to tolerate the other. We're sitting there to allow the other to enter our minds and perchance to bring in something fresh to our musty opinions.



Suspend judgment as best you can.

It doesn't say, “Thou shalt not judge. Judging is bad.” It's friendlier and more realistic. It says do the best you can–given that our minds are busy judging most of the time. Good/bad, ugly/pretty, like/don't like, better/worse, blah/blah. Many years ago I noticed that whenever I went into a new group of people, my normally very easy-going mind bristled with judgments. My mind had something snotty to say about everyone. Everyone. Later I'd notice that by the end of the event, I'd be in love with nearly every one of those judged people. Had they changed? Had I? Or had my judgments? What changed, actually, was how at ease I felt. My judgments were my porcupine quills sprung to attention in strange situations. When I relaxed, my quills drooped and I was approachable unto pettable. After a while, even one quill at half mast told me I was just scared and I could let it go and meet people. In Conversation Cafés–as in life– uspending judgment as best you can allows you to get on with turning strangers into friends.



Seek to understand rather than persuade.

This agreement is heresy for all of us good people who feel called to change the world. And how, pray tell, can we change it without persuasion? It's a war for eyeballs out there. Sound-bytes and marketing are our weapons. We need to win. Perhaps, though, winning through intimidation or even through persuasion is part of the old domination – not bodies but minds. What if our cause were to ”seek to understand” one another's ideas and lives and longings? What if, out of that, we'd discover how much we didn't understand one another at all. Many times we attack because we think we've been attacked – and in reality no offense was meant. Many times we react to what a person didn't say and misunderstanding escalates. Instead of being freed by arguing our point, we become enmeshed in a “No I didn't” “Yes you did” conversation that spirals down the toilet. Instead, inquire. “What did you mean when you said…” “Try saying it a different way so I'm sure I get it…” “What happened that led you to that point of view?” This is “seek to understand” talk. It's verbal aikido. It liberates everyone from a war of words and words of war.



Question assumptions, look for new insights.

This could be a freedom bumper sticker. The purpose of the Conversation Cafés–and possibly a free life–is to expand the space of freedom one occupies. Our assumptions and certainties are the boundaries we've constructed to make sense of life. When we put them there, they seemed right or at least useful. They let in truth and rejected lies. But we change, life changes and conditions in the world change–so why not question assumptions? Why not look for insights that might refresh your understanding and maybe even reset your boundaries more appropriately?

Sincerity: Speak what has personal heart and meaning. This is Nonviolent Communication in a social setting. If you talk about your feelings and needs, not what someone else said or what someone else ought to do, people can so easily relate to you. Conversation Cafés aren't support or therapy groups, so the feelings and needs revealed there are more about issues and ideas. Talking about political ideas can be fascinating, but exploring why particular ideas are thrilling or frightening to you can be freeing. You free yourself from borrowed convictions and the prison of your mind–and you free others to be inquisitive and open rather than defensive and aggressive.



Go for honesty and depth, but don't go on and on…

Perhaps the people most liberated by your brevity will be those who have to listen to you. But you, as well, are freed from the loneliness of speaking to people who stopped listening sentences, if not hours, weeks or years ago.





Conversation Week logo

Conversation Café hosts are social liberators—and the function can go far beyond a small table in a coffee shop. Social freedom, the freedom to be yourself in groups, actually comes from a capacity to be yourself and the group—and this is the special skill CC hosts learn just by doing it.

A Conversation Café host only has a few simple, minimal things to do. They are asked to reliably show up and welcome people to the table. They read aloud the agreements, explain the process and introduce the other necessary props. Those are a “talking object,” something small and handy the person who is speaking holds in the two opening and one closing rounds, the pens and paper for jotting down stray thoughts to unbusy the mind, the “wallet cards” (a small card with the process and agreements) and maybe a sign for the table so strangers and stragglers can find you. Hosts keep time, making sure that the closing round begins about 10 minutes before the end time. That's it. For the rest, the host is hopefully a model of keeping the agreements but is every bit as engaged as the rest in the word jazz. Just this structure provides everything needed for a good shot at a great conversation.

Over time, though, I noticed an amazing triple-mind capacity growing in me as I hosted. In brief, triple-mind means a host attends fully to their own inner process and passions and fully to each speaker's words and meanings and fully to what is alive in the group, the feelings, patterns, insights that are emerging naturally out of the group interaction. To unpack that a bit…


The first mind was my old familiar one–the constant stream of thoughts, opinions, ideas, judgments and speculations that all answer to Vicki. It's my own inner dysfunctional family of warring selves with conflicting needs–and I, the warm witness, take it all in. My first round of sharing often arises from that mind–the one that tries to present itself in a good light. Sometimes, in the heat of conversation, I speak from there as well, since a host isn't an objective facilitator, but an engaged participant with just a couple of other minds active as well.


The second mind is listening to what each person says with absolute attention and utter fascination. I enter the worldview and life experience of the speaker, without any need to change anything. I might ask a steering question, but less as a helper than an appreciator who wants to drink in everything about this utter work of art across the table. Unless the person goes on and on, I find their words arrive at my ears like music.


The third mind of hosting is attuning not to self or other, but to the meanings that begin to arise from the rich, bubbling stew of the interactions. I get the sense that something is trying to be said, that I am no longer talking with other people but that we are all engaged in a kind of word and thought jazz. We're making music, riffing, harmonizing, calling, responding. I now speak not to assert myself but to stirs this communal pot, bringing attention to some unusual combination of thoughts, turning up or down the heat, adding a dash of heart when it's too heady or a dash of reason when tempers flare. Eventually I feel like I am not speaking for myself and to another, but addressing as a “we” this collective meaning that arises from the “we”.

Photo of Vicki Robin


Read her article on Conversation Cafés here.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.