You usually do this by forming a Circle.
Forming the Circle
The Café Host asks the participants to move the tables to one side (if there are any) and to form their chairs into a circle.
Forming the Circle
Surprisingly in the most cramped of rooms or where the tables and chairs are heavy, it is still possible to form a circle, and even for large groups of 30 or more this typically takes less than 2 minutes.
Everyone sits in the Circle including the host and the speaker.
Refining the Circle
Often when the participants first form the circle, it is too large and has “kinks” in it. Ask the participants to shuffle their chairs forward to eliminate the “kinks, ” and so the circle is as round and as tight as possible. It is important that everyone can both see and hear each other.
Handling rogue participants
On occasions, one or two people may choose not to join the circle but sit outside the perimeter and still expect to join in the conversation. This behavior may be because they do feel comfortable in the ring or lack their confidence though in my experience it tends to be the more dominant characters in the room and seems to be more about arrogance. You should make it clear that if they wish to join the conversation, they should sit in the circle.
Benefits of the Circle
The benefit of the Circle, first and foremost, is that everyone is equal. No one has an advantage or is seen as superior as a consequence of where they sit.
Everyone can also easily see and hear each other and it is more difficult for one person to dominate the conversation.
Importantly, the Café host can see everyone and through eye contact and body language can shape the conversation to some degree by indicating to dominant people they should talk less and encouraging the quieter members of the group to speak up.
In Circles up to about 30 people in size, microphones are not usually needed. But over 30 it is best to have at least two roving mikes – even three.
How the Circle Works
The host should start the conversation when everyone is settled by explaining briefly how the Circle works.
The host should make it clear to people that they should not formally report back to either him or herself or the group. And that they should not try to summarize everything discussed.
They should simply share an idea, insight, or something they feel significant from the conversations they have had. Something they feel moved to say.
Others may then share items of their own or respond to the previous speaker.
They should be reminded to speak up and address the whole group so that everyone can hear.
The closer they can make it conversational the better.
Facilitating the Circle Conversation
Having explained the Circle process, the host poses the question “So who would like to continue the conversation?”
Now, in reality, it is impossible to have a real conversation with such a large group. It is more a series of short report backs by people. And although the host has asked them not to report back, this way of working is so ingrained in most cultures that it is what people naturally do.
It is only after taking part in several Cafés or in smaller more intimate Cafés that people come close to a large group conversation.
Depending on the participants and the culture, one of two things can happen in a Circle.
First, everyone engages enthusiastically, and a lively conversation unfolds. In this case, you do not have a great deal to do.
Second, people are slow to speak up and engage, and there are extended periods of silence especially at the beginning. It is important that the host does not feel compelled to fill the silence and start taking. This does not help.
The host should just sit quietly and patiently and sooner or later someone will break the silence. This can be tough to do, but the host should just sit there and smile.
Remember the Café is about the participants, not about the host.
One thing the host should do is to scan the participants continually. Casting their eyes around the circle. Some people seem to think they are still at school and raise their hand, often only slightly and somewhat timidly to indicate they would like to say something. The host should invite them in at an appropriate moment.
One of the Café principles is that no one should be forced to do anything that they do not wish to do. This means that the host should not call on individuals to say something.
Two reasons. One, you do not want to put anyone on the spot, and secondly, you want people to speak from passion – not because they have been asked to. When they are invited to talk for the sake of filling the space, they too often do just that speak about nothing of importance to fill the space. This you need to avoid.
If the silence does last long then, by all means, the host should speak up and share something of their own. But it should be kept short and with the intention of drawing others into the conversation.
Maybe ask a question and all the time scan the circle for anyone ready to talk and invite them in. Often people’s body language indicates they would like to say something.
When the Circle has fallen silent, or time has run out, the host should draw the conversation to a close.
Sharing Actionable Insights
At the end of the Circle conversation, the host may initiate a round-robin where they ask each person in turn to share one actionable insight they had during the Café.
Closing the Café
Finally, the host should close the Café by saying a few words of summary and thanking everyone for their participation. No more is needed than that.A short video of Circle conversation taking place at one of my London Knowledge Cafés. It is not the best of rooms or Circles and most of my Cafés are not usually dominated by so many men.
[Status: work in progress. This post is basically complete but I need to clean it up a little.]
This page is part of an online book on Conversational Leadership that I am in the process of writing.
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