How do you organize your online conversations?
Leave it all open? Just kick off and then see?
Or do you structure it?
Our experience tells us that structuring an online conversation is essential. Else one risks to lose focus and attention and end up with a few talking heads and a silent majority.
There are several options how you can structure a conversation:
- Through questions, or a series of questions;
- And/ or through limiting/ or chunking the time;
- And/ or through splitting the group into smaller breakout rooms and eventually by remixing these breakout room groups.
We – Corinne and Nadia – love holding Conversation Cafes.
We use this interaction structure from the Liberating Structures repertoire often in our workshops.
- Because it structures a conversation magically.
- Because it includes everyone actively.
- Because it creates space for listening.
- Because it creates a relaxed atmosphere and serenity at the same time.
- Because it leads to a beautiful harvest of insights and conclusions.
Structuring provides rhythm and pace
A Conversation Cafe is structured in four discussion rounds:
The first is a go around, one after the other answers a question in a few sentences.
The second is a reaction. After having heard all voices, everyone shares in the same order as in the first round, a short statement on what she or he has heard and what is emerging for her or him.
Through these two rather brief rounds, the group is laying out a first landscape of themes, thoughts, ideas, and questions.
Now it’s time for conversation. Building on what has already been shared, the group enters into conversation.
The Conversation Cafe is closed with a final round of what resonates, insights and conclusions. In an online setting this can be done either orally or through the chat box.
We like the slower rhythm and pace, the interweaving of thoughts and ideas in several rounds. Everyone is repeatedly invited to contribute. Everyone is heard. We love the quality of listening.
„When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”The Dalai Lama
The talking piece acts as “facilitator”
The Conversation Cafe uses a talking piece in all discussion rounds. A talking piece is a simple helper for a smooth turn taking. Showing it signals ‘it’s my turn to share. While holding it one can speak without being interrupted. When finished, one puts the talking piece down.
For first timers this can feel a bit strange, normally people figure out pretty fast how handy the talking piece is. Not being interrupted, and not having to jump in at the right moment ‘to grab’ the word is relaxing, certainly for shyer voices.
We love using a talking piece in online conversations. It gives full attention to the person talking. The simple talking piece acts like the facilitator. The process is almost self-facilitated.
The circle of a small group creates intimacy
The first two steps of the Conversation Cafe follow the logic of the circle. Being in a circle and having a conversation that flows the sense of a circle is deeply human and natural. It gives a relaxed atmosphere, a feeling of security.
In the virtual space the circle needs to be established (the arrangement of the people on the screens looks different on each individual screen). You can do this either naturally (invite everyone to remember who talks before/ after them). We prefer to define it before we start. We invite everyone to add her/ his name to the chat. The order of the names appearing in the chat box is our circle. You could also follow the alphabetical order of the names or the length of the hair.
If the group is larger than 5-7 people you create breakout rooms. We prefer to have Conversation Cafes in groups of 5. So if your group is larger, hold several Conversations Cafes in parallel.
We invite everyone to talk to the whole group, rather than addressing a question to a specific person. This way the group can avoid ending up in a confrontial ping-pong argument between a few louder voices. We also say you can ask questions but don’t expect immediate answers. There is no expectation that the person talking after a question was raised needs to address it.
We enjoy the rhythm of several conversation rounds, and how the various ideas and discussion threads are woven together. And how everyone is contributing.
Step by step process
- Do the framing of the theme and the discussion question(s).
- Invite people to grab an object that serves as a talking piece. It can be any ordinary thing present on their desk.
- Explain the steps of the process, remind everyone that in round 1 and 2 they are invited to share a short statement only (no discussion) and that the discussion will follow in round 3.
1st round: RESPONSE
- Go around the circle with a talking object.
- Short statements by each as response, max 1’ per person
- Each person shares what she or he is thinking, feeling, or doing about the theme, issue or question.
- Remark: You can always let the talking object pass if you are not ready yet to speak; it will come back.
2nd round: REACTION
- Go around the circle again with talking object
- Short statements by each as reaction, max 1’ per person
- After having heard all others, each person shares what comes up for her or him, what is particularly important.
- 15-20 mins, open conversation with talking object
- Making sense of what was said and reflecting together.
- 5-20 mins. Orally and/ or through the chat box
- Sharing insights, conclusions and takeaways
Compared to other conversation processes, Conversation Cafe is time-wise one of the ‘faster’ processes. In 30-40 minutes, you can have meaningful reflections in a group.
When to use and more resources
We use the Conversation Cafe for reflecting important themes and questions and to generate insights and deepen our understanding.
For example, how can we, in our roles as leaders and/ or facilitators, contribute to valuable, meaningful and engaging online collaboration and events?
More ideas on when and how to use you can find on the website of Liberating Structures and the Liberators and Learning Moments.
Now it’s up to you to use it!
When would be a good opportunity for you to try it out with your team, group, network or class? We are curious to hear your feedback. Please leave a note in the comment.
- The rhythm of the Ecocycle: An introduction with examples
- Keeping up attention in online meetings – stop blaming – start caring
- Truly inviting invitations. A joint exploration on May 9 from 13:30 – 15:30 CEST. Join us if you agree that meeting and workshop invitations are important door openers to create engagement before the meeting or workshop even starts.
- Engage & keep engagement high. A joint exploration on the art of facilitating engagement in online meetings and workshops. June 9 from 13:30 – 15:30 CEST. Join us if you agree that people meet to engage and that you – as workshop leader and facilitator – want to facilitate engagement so that the voice of each single participant can be heard.
I love Liberating Structures, but it's important I think when sharing resources about the structures that practitioners also share resources to the original sources of the methods, because these take you deeper. I love LS because they are often handy essential distillations of longer and deeper processes, but it's important to know when it's time to choose the LS version or dive into a fuller experience. Conversation Cafe is more than 20 years old, born in the era of dialogue methods proliferating all over the place.
You can find the Conversation Cafe website here: https://www.conversationcafe.org/
Thanks a lot Chris for the link and reminder of the (hi)story and the deeper process behind the Conversation Cafe!
Another ones to add are certainly the Circle Practice: http://www.thecircleway.net/circle-way-guidelines
And the Bohm Dialogue: https://www.themarginalian.org/2016/12/05/david-bohm-on-dialogue/