The World Café Model: Convening conversations that matter

In early May, I had the privilege of facilitating a World Café in Fond du Lac. The focus of the event was servant leadership.

It was hosted by the Sophia Foundation, an organization that has as its mission the intention “to create a caring community where leaders and citizens gather to learn and serve; where they foster hope and explore meaningful possibilities together for all people.”

The World Café event reflected that possibility for the Fond du Lac community. About 170 people attended. There were representatives from education, government, business, health care, the arts, and not for profit organizations. CEOs, managers, front line workers, volunteers and students came together to explore the notion of servant leadership and what it might mean for their community.

There were three speakers who offered their experience and understanding of what it means to be a servant leader. Their messages were inspiring and motivational. And the deeper energy was in the conversation, table to table.

The World Café Model: history and evolution

Juanita Brown is the architect of the World Café Model. In 1995, she and her partner, David Issacs, hosted a two day community meeting in their California home.

When people arrived the first day, they enjoyed coffee and tea on their beautiful sprawling deck, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Day two presented challenges, as an early morning storm held on. Anticipating the rain, Juanita and David set up TV tables throughout the living area. Playfully, they added flipchart paper as “table clothes,” and small vases of flowers. As their guests arrived, they enjoyed their coffee at the TV tables, four or five together, and continued the conversation from the day before.

An hour passed. Rather than asking people to assemble as they had the day before, Juanita and David trusted the dynamic that was evolving. At some point, one of the guests said: “I would really like to hear what’s being said at John’s table.” Someone else suggested: “Why don’t we change tables and hear what has been happening in other conversations.” They continued that process for the rest of the day.

Toward the end of their time together, Juanita and David invited the group to talk about what they had learned. In addition to the creative thinking and “pollinating” of ideas, people left the day energized, hopeful and committed to continuing the conversation.

What began 20 years ago in that California home, has become a model for strategic conversations utilized in business, government, communities, etc. The design principles of the World Café are relevant to any intentional gathering.

Design principles for the World Café

  1. Set the context. Pay attention to the reason you are bringing people together, and what you want to achieve.
  2. Create hospitable space. When people feel comfortable to be themselves, they do their most creative thinking, speaking and listening.
  3. Explore questions that matter. As you consider convening the conversation, creating a question that is compelling, that can “travel,” and that is meaningful to participants is a key factor in the level of engagement within the gathering.
  4. Encourage everyone’s contribution.
  5. Connect diverse perspectives. In the World Café Model, participants move to different tables throughout the time of the gathering, often building on the same question, linking ideas and discoveries with others who may or may not share the same opinions. The process, however, invites us to move toward common ground.
  6. Listen together for patterns and insights. Participants are encouraged to link and build on ideas and to listen for what is not being said.
  7. Share collective discoveries. In the World Café Model, sharing collective learning is called: “harvesting.” It is the process of identifying what has been most meaningful in the multiple conversations that creates an awareness of understanding, possibility and wholeness.

The World Café design principles were identified when Juanita and David asked those gathered in their home in 1995: “What contributed to the success of this community conversation?”

In many ways, the World Café in Fond du Lac in early May, links to the first café two decades ago in spirit and discovery.

Members of the team from Sophia Foundation were diligent in their efforts to honor the design principles for a World Café. From the moment participants arrived, they knew that they were in for something new, something exciting, and something meaningful. They engaged in a process that strengthens relationships; fosters creativity; appreciates differences; and looks to invite collective wisdom to respond to community challenges.

Given the level of energy and enthusiasm, I trust that the conversation in Fond du Lac will continue.

Perhaps our community has something to learn from their experience as well.

“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”     — Marcel Proust

-Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the sprits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit

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