Now is the time for all good people to listen

Waking up to Trump as President-Elect feels like waking up on 9/11 to unbelievable images of the twin towers crumbling. From our everyday concerns we-the-people were thrust into a range of passions and sorrows, assumptions and reactions we had little idea how to handle. We didn’t have Facebook back then, so we poured into lecture halls, stadiums and plazas to make sense not just of events “out there” but who we are “in here”. It was a challenge to identity.

Some vilified “the other” but a few of us in Seattle had a different impulse. We wanted to listen – safely – to people we didn’t know and perhaps didn’t agree with. Fortunately, we had just developed a way to do that.

In the Summer of 2001, Susan Partnow, Habib Rose and I stationed ourselves in cafes in 3 of the 4 neat quadrants of Seattle to see if we could stimulate conversations between people, both patrons and those we invited. On September 10 we met to compare notes. Each had such rich experiences that we dreamed of a way to promote a “culture of conversation” in Seattle, with a website for self-organizing and cafes serving like conversation corners in Open Space 0r Un-conferences.

Within a week we’d committed to spreading what we dubbed Conversation Cafes as a way for Americans to make sense of 9/11 – and hopefully transform some of the knee-jerk reactivity into curiosity and learning.

Within another week, in partnership with a wider group of dialogue mavens, we’d distilled our learning into the Conversation Cafe method.

Within another week we’d planned for Conversation Week in January with a big launch event at Elliott Bay books followed by a week of opportunities in cafes around the city to work on a simple set of questions:

What do you think about it?
What do you feel about it?
What are you inclined to do about it?

Head. Heart. Hands. Nothing fancy.

(We could use the same set now:
Trump as President-Elect:
What do you think about it?
What do you feel about it?
What are you inclined to do about it?)

Within 3 months we’d trained 65 hosts and engaged an equal number of luminaries (including the whole city council) to show up at one of the 26 cafes slated for Conversation Week.

In January we introduced the method and the Conversation Week to follow to an overflow crowd (well over 200 people) in the basement of the bookstore.

By the end of the week, 500 people in Seattle had experienced a Conversation Cafe. A partially snarky, partially favorable NYTimes reporter wrote a story which spread our positive virus. Within a few months the whole approach to public conversations was picked up in Toronto and Louisville. Other papers like the Christian Science Monitor picked up up and bam, it spread further, jumping the pond to the UK and the ocean to Japan.

In 2004 we created Let’s Talk America with Utne, dropping knowledge, Orange Band and the World Cafe to foster conversations across the red/blue divide. This resulted in instructions on how to use the method for large group dialogue.

In 2007 we created an international Conversation Week to foster what is now so easy on the internet – simultaneous conversations around the world with immediate reporting on how people in diverse countries responded to the same “most important questions in the world today.

Currently the Conversation Cafes are hosted by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation and promoted as a rapid response method for dialogue in times of crisis.

The Conversation Cafe method is a well-tested successful way to foster conversations across differences. It’s like hacky-sack – collaborative play. It’s like Halloween – scary exciting. Hosting a local cafe may not be for everyone at this somber moment of processing what Trump’s victory means for all that we cherish, but for some it may be a tool you’re ready to use.

The instructions are simple enough to fit on a business card, available here along with a wealth of support. The method has proven sturdy enough that anyone who decides to host one can pull it off by reading the manual.

For simplicity, here’s the Conversation Cafe method in a nutshell:

Conversation Café Agreements
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 from your heart and personal experience.
Brevity: Go for honesty and depth but don’t go on and on.

Conversation Café Process
Assemble up to 8 people plus host, hearty topic, a talking object, and me (60-90 min.). Host explains process and agreements.
Round 1: Pass around the talking object; each person speaks briefly to the topic, no feedback or response.
Round 2: Again with talking object, each person deepens their own comments or speaks to what has meaning now.
Dialogue: Open, spirited conversa on. Use talking object if there is domina on, conten on, or lack of focus.
Final Round: With talking object, each person says briefly what challenged, touched or inspired them.

Questions To Go Deeper

  • What happened that led you to this point of view?
  • How does this affect you personally?
  • I’m curious, can you say more about that…
  • Here’s what I heard…is that what you mean?

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