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Should NCDD become the new steward of Conversation Cafe?

NCDD is engaging our members and the broader dialogue and deliberation community on an important decision we’re facing, and we are seeking our members’ input, ideas, and reaction.

CC-walletcard2Our good friend Jacquelyn Pogue has reluctantly decided to retire from her stewardship of the process known as Conversation Café, leaving a powerful form of dialogue at risk. Jacqueline, as well as Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow (the co-creators of Conversation Café), approached me about whether NCDD would be interested in stewarding the tool, and I believe NCDD has the skills and resources to help.

In case you don’t know, Conversation Cafés are 90-minute dialogues usually held in public settings like coffee shops or bookstores. The format is simple (it fits on the back of a business card!), anyone can join, and the goal is to simply give people a chance to talk informally with neighbors around an issue of shared interest. We have a nice primer on CCs on our site here.

This idea intrigues me for several reasons…

First of all, I’m a big fan of Conversation Café. It’s an elegantly simple process that gets people talking to strangers about issues we usually avoid. CCs are quick, easy to host, low-resource, and are open source (no trademark or sensitivity about ownership).

Secondly, I’ve wondered for years if CCs could be leveraged as an entry point for citizens to experience other, more nuanced types of engagement, and as a stepping stone for broader and wider use of dialogue and deliberation.

And thirdly, the NCDD community as a whole struggles to be able to respond quickly to crises and conflicts as they arise, and to provide citizens with the tools they need to self-organize their own dialogues as needed. If NCDD were to shepherd a self-organized, open source dialogue method that is simple enough for anyone to use, we would be enabling much-needed dialogue to take place more readily and efficiently than is possible now.

So what do you think? Should NCDD move on this opportunity? And if so, how could we do it in a way that best serves our whole community? And if not, what concerns you about this?

Can you see Conversation Cafés being leveraged as a rapid response mechanism in times of national crisis? How best might we make this happen?

Sandy Heierbacher on FacebookSandy Heierbacher on LinkedinSandy Heierbacher on Twitter
Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Charlie Wisoff says:

    I admittedly don’t know that much about Conversation Cafes. I can see the potential benefit of keeping a vibrant model of dialogue alive, but the same time I have a big reservation about NCDD taking on the role of steward: up until this point it is arguable that NCDD has been agnostic about the value of certain dialogue and deliberation models relative to others. It has maintained a standpoint of neutrality. This has had the benefit of allowing NCDD to cast a wide net. It attenuates feelings of competition amongst promoters of different models of dialogue who are members or might join NCDD.

    While I don’t think becoming the steward of Conversation Cafes would necessarily change this from NCDD’s point of view, I can see how OTHERS MIGHT PERCEIVE IT DIFFERENTLY. This, for example, often happens with Kettering when some people equate its work with National Issues Forums, even though Kettering strives to look at many more forums of public deliberation and citizen engagement. I don’t think this is necessarily inevitable, but it is a danger.

    • You just outlined our #1 concern, Charlie, and the most important reason we’re not moving forward on this unless our members are largely behind it and excited about it. NCDD has no intention of being synonymous with Conversation Cafe or any other method — but could NCDD use Conversation Cafe as a way to bring more people into this whole field? My hope is that by making a simple process like Conversation Cafe more widely used and readily available, we could pave the way for many more people to experience more in-depth forms of dialogue and deliberation.

      One practical idea I have is for NCDD to develop materials that we distribute to CC hosts; materials that show CC as part of a greater landscape of participatory processes, provide links to other methods and events, etc.

  2. Hi Sandy,

    I am a huge fan of the Conversation Cafe method. I use the spirit of the method when building online, cafe style conversations for informal learning in the corporate world.

    What will happen to the Conversation Cafe if NCDD doesn’t accept stewardship?


    • I’m not sure what would happen if NCDD says no. Perhaps someone else will step up? As far as I know, they only approached NCDD with this.

    • Dana – you touched on something I’m very interested in — exploring how the Conversation Cafe method (the simplest dialogue method I’m aware of) can be translated online. I’d love to talk with you about what you’d been doing and learning.

      • I love that phrase — “the spirit of the method” — and also this concept: “the simplest dialogue method I am aware of”.

        Maybe it’s just me — or maybe because I started doing “online dialogue” in the early 1990’s — my instinct is “the simpler the better”.

        I tend to see NCDD as a comprehensive library of alternatives — each of which is appropriate under specific conditions or for certain purposes. Maybe “which method” is a choice that should be determined by the circumstances or immediate local context — and “all of the methods” could be seen as viable alternatives within one very comprehensive and fluent tool-kit.

        That, for me –feels like a winning formula for substantial social change. Adapt to the local environment, speak their lingo, meet them on their home ground, use the tool that fits. But whatever it takes — keep calling them into the universal common ground of mutual respect and genuine creative listening.

      • Hi Sandy (and others),

        I’d be happy to show you how I leveraged the cafe format to have “live online” conversation at Cisco and presented at the MASIE learning conference. If anyone else is interested, I can set up a web meeting to discuss. 🙂 Just email me at Dana (at) Conscious Convergence dot com.

        I love the Cafe format. I hope that if NCDD declines, they will look for other alternatives…


      • For what it’s worth, we’ve been using the Conversation Café’s six “agreements” as our default ground rules for small-group dialogues on Zilino since the beginning (with permission, of course). 😉

  3. John Spady says:

    Sandy, does “stewarding” also mean that the term “Conversation Café” and the website at ConversationCafe.org would be owned/operated by NCDD? Jacquelyn, Vicki, and Susan have built up such a wonderful legacy — but would it then become the “NCDD Conversation Café” going forward? As a 501(c)(3), NCDD might want to consider a process to steward gifts like these in the future.

    • Hi, John! Yes, stewarding would mean we take responsibility for and ownership of the CC website. But no, I don’t think it would become “NCDD Conversation Cafe.” It would still be its own thing, have its own network and website, etc. – but NCDD would be supporting it, helping it proliferate, and tying it into the rest of the great work being done in the field.

  4. Regina sneed says:

    The strength of NCDD is as a neutral gathering point for those interested in dialogue and deliberation. The best opportunity for conversation cafe to find a successor steward is at the upcoming NCDD conference. This retirement is only the first but will certainly not be the last such request. Perhaps this should be the topic of a panel at the conference. The request is a recognition that our profession has been around long enough to merit some planning around continuity of our practices. The task reminds me of the role of conservation specialist in the arts. As a side note, in media arts there is the need to preserve technology for media art forms. Many of our processes rely on technology that can become outdated. Perhaps this is a separate topic for the conference.

    • Interesting point, Regina. One distinction we might want to make is between “archiving” (keeping processes, resources, histories, etc. available) and “stewarding”, which we’re thinking of in terms of not only keeping the process alive but encouraging its use for the benefit of the whole NCDD community. I think NCDD already plays the archiving role, and that the stewarding role would be a one-time thing based on the unique usefulness of the Conversation Cafe approach.

      My opinion is that due to its extreme simplicity, low bar to entry, and open source standard, we have an opportunity to meet some of the NCDD’s community’s most challenging goals — including providing people with an easy inroad to more involved processes, and creating a structure that allows us to quickly respond to crises that call for dialogue.

    • Regina – you also said “The strength of NCDD is as a neutral gathering point for those interested in dialogue and deliberation.” I think you’re right — but at the same time we’ve seen that once our members gather, they tend to want MORE. We’re under increasing pressure from the community to move beyond the “community of practice” role to an organization that helps many in our field align their work and increase their collective impact. I think Conversation Cafes could be a key resource for doing one of the things we’ve heard our members want — a way to respond quickly to crises that call for dialogue (the Newtown shooting is a perfect example).

      So a question I’m struggling with is whether NCDD can remain a neutral gathering place for innovators in D&D if we’re also proliferating a specific process. Can we do this “on the side” in a way that strengthens the field and supports all approaches? And HOW might we do this in a way that allows us to retain our integrity and move the whole field forward?

  5. What I appreciate about conversation cafes is that they are such an open, public invitation for people to engage with each other about issues they care about. It is a way of embedding the fundamentals of dialogue in the very structure of the café, and gives people a lived experience of listening and being heard. It would interesting to consider how NCDD could host the resources here, while encouraging other forms of stewardship in the wider world. I’d also be interested in hosting conversation cafes that could continue to ripple out in the community through on-line platforms designed to support this sort of deliberation and dialogue.

  6. David Kimball says:

    Sandy (et al),

    I used to be a host for Conversation Cafe I believe shortly after they tried to expand out of the Northwest. I believe that for a while I may have had the only CC in New England.

    I can vouch for it being an excellent channel for dialogue. It also becomes a great channel for teaching Active Listening.

    I ran it for a few years and then backed away because it got to a point that people were coming for the wrong reason. Hopefully my experience can help some new hosts. At first, we had some great people with great ideas and a willingness to really discuss and dialogue. However, then people started coming because it was a better option than TV. They also were hoping that maybe they could meet some dates there. So as the more people came for the wrong reasons, the sooner those with the right reasons left.

    Thinking that it should be very democratic, I had the group select the topic. That worked when the dialogue people were there. However, later, the topics became mush and more about popular culture events rather than ideological events. (Which contributed to the exodus of the thinkers.)

    I’m not saying that the themes should come from a centralized source (like America Speak used to do) but I think it should be done by the host who has the vision.

    I like the idea of tying in CC with NCDD also because NCDD, to me, is not very useful for us lay people. It seems to me to be much more for professionals. This would give NCDD an opportunity to work with lay people in forming these discussion groups and even helping out by providing topics current within NCDD and receiving feedback from the hosts. (Again, like America Speaks used to do.) One problem with CC that I had was that whatever happened in that room, stayed in that room.

    One warning is that there will probably be certain activists in some groups who will not only want a chance to present (rather than dialogue) but will want deliberation and will want to develop a strategy once several people have had a chance to discuss a topic. If there is an organizational follow-through (like reporting back results to a central organization like NCDD) there will be a natural block to this type of piracy.

    I would like to see NCDD not just see CC as one of the (many) coalition members, but have a committee which will assist the CC’s with topic lists, and feeback, and then reports from time to time based on the feedbacks.

    Also, we started out for the first year at a Starbucks in order to encourage “drop-ins” as suggested by the CC info. However we found the background noise too disturbing for good dialogue, so we met for the last year or more at a library room. That was much better suited for discussions.

    I stopped partly because I felt I couldn’t do the marketing that I needed to do. However, I am now retired and I would definitely consider getting back into it and starting up a new group in my home town. If NCDD did take this on, it might even let me meet some NCDD people personally in the Boston area.

    Feel free to contact me if you would like any other thoughts on this.

    David Kimball

    • Rick Lent says:

      I like the idea that Conversation Cafe could become a tool in NCDD’s tool box. I appreciate the model because it is simple and follows a structural approach to building dialogue without necessarily relying on professional facilitation. More importantly, I think we need as many community level tools for helping neighbors meet each other and have conversations that matter. I understand Charlie’s concerns for NCDD’s neutral stance. I wonder though whether in time NCDD could be the home of many good methods that are losing their progenitors. I’m remembering what happened to the Foundation for Community Encouragement once its founder passed (Scott Peck). But that’s just one example. I recognize too David’s concern for maintaining the effectiveness of the approach. Here is where a continuing group of “stewards” for this or another approach could help it maintain effectiveness. By analogy, I am part of a group of facilitators that support 10 small group monthly conversations with the topics developed by that group of facilitators when they meet once a month.

      So some form of infrastructure would be necessary to maintain it. I don’t know what that would look like or how laborious it would be. But everyday, neighbor to neighbor, community level dialogue is so important.

  7. Rhonda Peterson says:

    It certainly sounds like a good opportunity to be a resource and even promote the use of this form of dialogue. I’d just suggest also giving some thought to what the costs are. What does the “steward” need to do exactly? Is it just posting materials on a website, or would you also be on tap to advise people who are having challenges with the technique, or give trainings, or some other function? If so, how much time is needed, and would that take away from other things you need to do for NCDD or is it an integral part of the work?

    As someone who has on occasion staffed new initiatives, I know that there can be time requirements that aren’t obvious at first blush! So just some food for thought.

    • These are very important considerations, Rhonda! A few bits of info around this… Conversation Cafe’s current steward, Jacquelyn Pogue, is willing to field calls from people who need help, advice, etc. on running CCs. Also Susan Partnow, one of the two co-creators of CCs, has offered to conduct phone trainings for hosts periodically. So there is some support in place there.

      I realize much more is needed, and we’ve been giving some thought to various levels of support we could provide. We would need funding to hire staff depending on how deep we want to go. But there are a number of things NCDD is already well suited to provide, and has the in-house skills to do, like web design, social media savvy, network building, etc.

  8. Landon Shultz says:

    Having read the blog post, my strong feeling is that your thinking about the future of Conversation Cafe is right on target.

    Conversation Café is a wonderful process and an important social resource. Someone should continue to carry the torch, and I can think of no organization better suited than NCDD.

    Your suggestions 1) to use Conversation Café as an entry point for citizens to discover other forms of social engagement, and 2) to use the Conversation Café framework to organize dialogue processes which can address emergent social crises and conflicts, are timely and well conceived.

    My vote is for NCDD to go forward full speed ahead on this matter. My only hesitation is that the demands of my current workload make it unlikely that I can do much to help, other than stand on the sideline and cheer. So if I can vote “yes,” even though I can’t do much to help carry the ball, then my counsel is that you will do well to “take the current as it serves,” as my mentor Mr. William Shakespeare would have said.

  9. Well, just quickly chiming in – I like this idea, and think you should do it. NCDD has a lot of basic vitality and a strong vision. You have the breadth of inclusion to be a significant force. You are a green growing tree. Jump on this.

    And with your internet system skills – if it were interesting – you could network these activities – as per “National Dialogue Infrastructure” (??)

    How are CC gathering significantly different from Joan Blades’ and Debilyn Molineaux’s “Living Room Conversations”? Maybe that question just muddies the waters – but to me they look closely related – and this all looks like another step towards a powerful multi-purpose integration of the larger agenda: get people talking everywhere about everything that matters – according to high and graceful standards. For my money, that is turning on the lights. Go for it.

    • Definitely, Bruce. We should tap into our technically savvy members to think about how we can network these Conversation Cafe activities — and for that matter, ALL dialogue and deliberation activities. What’s the platform that makes that possible, in the most flexible, agile, open way possible?

      John Spady – what’s your take on this? Your National Dialogue Network Infrastructure project had this goal in mind for one issue each year. Were you able to network multiple projects, so people learned from each other’s work and were inspired by each other’s work? I’d love to hear what you learned about this.

      Bruce – what would it look like to you, if these activities were “networked”? Could you say more about this?

      • Just a couple thoughts — this whole thing is pushing pretty hard right now. We had the “Arab Spring”. Maybe this is going to be the “Conversation Spring” 🙂 — who knows, maybe the “NCDD Spring”

        Sandy (above): Definitely, Bruce. We should tap into our technically savvy members to think about how we can network these Conversation Cafe activities — and for that matter, ALL dialogue and deliberation activities. What’s the platform that makes that possible, in the most flexible, agile, open way possible?

        Bruce: Well — we’d have to think about that — about what we mean — but we might start with a high-level kind of “top-down” model — maybe running in a collaborative database — probably with a set of very simple core agreements on “civility and mutual respect” — and then — maybe (?) a list of central/agreed-upon “tags” that could be shared across multiple platforms — probably by “agreement” and installed by hand (at least at first — rather than some hot automated technology — that might get screwed up)

        So, maybe we have a daily or weekly “tag upload” where we keep all the integrating keys for a conversation running on 100 different web sites — all conversations with the same tags, decided by “democratic agreement” — and all running under the same mutual respect/listening civility agreement…

        This could be something like (or the same thing as) the National Dialogue Infrastructure — but designed in such a way as to take on “hundreds of interconnected simultaneous issues”. A couple years ago, I did build a demo model for an issue network that could take on hundreds of issues connected through a framework like the Dewey Decimal System. Those issues should also have a GIS (geographical location) aspect attached to them, since issues are generally region-specific.

        If we maintained “industry standards” across all participants in this “Conversation Alliance” — tags, civility, voting processes, kind of like our new “network constitution” — we’d start to have a whole new “citizen nation” going for us. And it would not be massively centralized — the “load would be shared across many platforms”. I think the central agreement and the daily/weekly/monthly upload/update process could be very simple and easy-to-live with. Just keep the core data in a text or “xml” format — a simple universal standard that works on just about any machine or program — and get people excited about a big national/international hand-holding process that takes on everything…

        I’m trying to remember that standard for conversations in the early 1990’s — a “list” process — might still be going on — where the core management would create a new national network if a developer could come up with 100 committed subscribers… (I think that was “UseNet”)

        Today, we could do something similar — but on a more sophisticated level, since the tools today are so powerful and the bandwidth so much higher. And we could be looking for ways to make it fully “multi-media”. Get all kinds of platforms connected — so people would have their choice of media — video conferencing, Maestro-call (phones) — chat, email, blog — all these different formats — but all running under a common agreement — kind of like “library science” — where a bunch of librarians a long time ago agreed to create the Dewey Decimal System set of categories — just a social convention — but it was sufficiently robust to reliably organize and locate a billion books…


        John Spady – what’s your take on this? Your National Dialogue Network Infrastructure project had this goal in mind for one issue each year. Were you able to network multiple projects, so people learned from each other’s work and were inspired by each other’s work? I’d love to hear what you learned about this.

        Bruce – what would it look like to you, if these activities were “networked”? Could you say more about this?


        Bruce: Sandy, thank you. This has been (continues to be) very interesting. Somehow, all of this bluesky stuff suddenly feels very reasonable and feasible.

        I just posted a rather too-longish message to the NCDD listserv (“Democracy in the Cloud”) — but maybe I could sketch up a statement of this idea I just posted here on our possible new “Network Nation”, and when it is a little cleaner — I could send it to you for consideration and discussion.

    • Also, Bruce, Living Room Conversations are similar to Conversation Cafes as they’re both simple dialogue processes that happen in one sitting. There are key differences, like CC’s usually happen in public places with an open recruitment process and LRCs happen in living rooms at the invitation of two co-hosts from different political perspectives. Also LRCs are specifically focused on bridging the partisan divide, though they can be used for other purposes.

      I’ve had this idea for a while, of having NCDD “adopt” a simple, streamlined dialogue process that can provide newbies an easy way to get started in the field, and considered Living Room Conversations for this for a while as well.

      • Yes, you are clearly right about the differences. I think what’s happening for me is that I am connected across such a wide range of things — of community sectors, of cultural traditions, of “facets of diversity” — that I am pulling hard for integral connections that are strong enough to embrace all this diversity (political, ideological, cultural, situational) without cracking up. I am feeling this “perfect storm” convergence — of hundreds of major cultural/social/environmental issues coming together at once — overloading the human capacity for response — and feeling that a huge increase in “bandwidth” is called for now — maybe a movement away from separate/private processes to something like “integral collective” or “resonant wholeness” — across all boundaries. For me — it does seem to be “imperative” — and we are now finding ourselves in an accelerating vortex of complexity and overload that is forcing us towards these high-bandwidth solutions. Maybe it’s my eccentric perspective — but for me, NCDD is like the heartbeat of salvation for a confused and freaked-out world — you got every tool in the world, and all the best options at your fingertips. Plus you got cool internet, and soul to boot. As these methods become more universal, more intuitive, less mechanistic (not to discount the particular mechanics), and more directly cocreative and even “intimate” — whole new solutions can emerge from this most powerful creative vortex. I don’t mean to be reckless, and I could easily miss something — but I just say — push. Go. Grab it and go. Hook up A to B and get them talking — across any boundary that creates wounding tension and misunderstanding and waste. More bandwidth. Optic fiber — speed of light. You are at the switching hub of macro-level social change. Get Cisco in there if you can……

      • Thanks for thinking of Living Room Conversations and the similarities/differences to Conversation Cafe. Here is the reply I made last night to the email thread:

        Hello Bruce et al:
        I’m glad NCDD is considering stewardship of Conversation Cafe and strongly support it.

        You asked about the similarities between Conversation Cafe and Living Room Conversations. They do indeed have some key similarities- neither require facilitators, all the guidance for doing both kinds of conversations are available online and both have a vision of enabling communities around the country to connect in a more meaningful way.

        There are also key differences. Living Room Conversations are designed specifically to bring diverse viewpoints to the conversation and build relationships between people that might not normally talk about any issue of substance. First conversations are more highly structured – focussed on building trust in the first hour and a sense of shared values so that participants will hear each other as friends when the issue of the conversation is addressed. The point, to really hear each other and possibly find common ground. The 5 question format that allows people to get to know one another before touching on an issue takes a little longer than CC. I call this the “re-humanizing time” since there is a chance people are nervous about the diversity of opinion. Also the conversations are typically co-hosted by friends, each of whom then invite two friends to the conversation, so this is a friends and friends of friends structure.

        Topic materials for Living Room Conversations have been issue or politically oriented…bridging the political divides. We are learning that conversations about issues where we know there is a great deal of common ground are a great starting point. People of diverse viewpoints do have a lot in common, despite what we see in the news media. This is a discovery process for what we have in common.

        If anyone out there has participated in both CC and LRC…I’d love to hear from you about your experience with both processes.

    • Susan Partnow says:

      I believe there is quite an historical connection: years ago, Conversation Cafe partnered with several allies to create “Let’s Talk America” – which added an additional particular and important component for that initiative to bring “red & blue” together – which was to intentionally bring diverse parties to the table. Once together, we used a slightly modified CC approach… Over the years through many ups and downs and ins and outs – this LTA campaign morphed to Transpartisan Alliance and ultimately to inspiring Living Room Dialogues as well…

      • Thanks for your comment, Susan. I have a couple of graphics that indicate this history, and just put them online this morning, at this address:


        I put your comment there, too — hope that’s ok.

        I haven’t heard from Joseph for quite a while — though I got an email from Franca Baroni a couple of days ago. I replied, but I have not heard from her. I bought her book “On Governance” when it was first published.

      • John Spady says:

        And I would add that I was aware and influenced by the Let’s Talk America model when I created my proposal to the NCDD community for a National Dialogue Network (ncdd.org/10940).

      • Just interesting — that I got contacted today by someone I knew a couple years ago from the Coffee Party — who wants to push a petition on Education. Her website is http://thecrucialvoice.com/ — “Education’s Missing Voice” — and she, too, has the Let’s Talk America / Transpartisan Alliance “wallet card” on her site — in a better format than mine — so, hers is on my site now. We are starting to talk about how to create a broad alliance of groups that could support her initiative (look for content in mission statements that seems to correlate, and do what we can to build a “venn diagram sweet spot” interconnecting separate groups on common themes).

      • Just have to acknowledge another historical footnote here. I was just on the Conversation Cafe web site, and saw the name “Habib Rose” mentioned as a founder.


        This goes back a long ways — but Steve Habib Rose was a friend on several projects back in the 1990s, when so much of this stuff was a gleam in the eye…

        Steve Habib Rose

        I think Steve passed away in 2007. A gentle visionary soul with the heart of a networker…

  10. Dick LaFever says:

    I’m all for it. Only one tool in the tool box, and we have a large tool box.

  11. Cameron Kelly-Johnson says:

    I think it’s a valuable tool. If the NCDD becomes its steward in a way that keeps it separate, on its own site, and does not allow funding issues to arise, I don’t see an issue long term. I would think that to become its steward as an umbrella opens a door that is risky, in that if NCDD stewards one, why not others, and at some point you hit a need to define. But I also think that very conflict is exactly the sort of thing Dialogue & Deliberation is supposed to be attempting to solve. So if we can’t do it in our own waters, we have more to learn about guarding the ocean than we think.

  12. Well, I would love to hear about the Cisco experiences. There was a time a couple of years ago working with Coffee Party and Occupy where I was having lots of silly fantasies about Cisco. And “Conscious Convergence” — that, too, sounds like me. It was 6 or 8 years ago that Barbara Marx Hubbard asked me to build a project we called “Report from the Convergence”. It’s a modest little thing — but I’d guess most of it is familiar (might be JUST a little woo-woo) http://interspirit.net/convergence/index.cfm

  13. Sandy asks

    “Can you see Conversation Cafés being leveraged as a rapid response mechanism in times of national crisis? How best might we make this happen?”

    Sorry if I am pushing this too hard — but from my point of view, this “national crisis” thing is happening right now — and like the proverbial slowly boiling frogs, we are in the fog of cognitive overload and a reasonably comfortable economy (for many of us), and don’t see any clear way to jump…

    It’s too much, all at once, and we hardly even realize it — until some clear-thinking commentator draws it all up on one screen — somebody like Arianna Huffington in Third World America. Or maybe Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein in It’s Even Worse than it Looks, or Thomas Friedman in That Used to be Us.

    I’m not a pessimist. I think we’re going to respond with the real answers to making this place work. But maybe the heat has to get pretty high before the necessary creative explosions can make the necessary breakthroughs.

  14. Hi Sandy and all,

    I have been both a CC host, and an attendee. In the past, I worked on Conversation Week events, and attended one when I happened to be near one on a trip to Tucson. I concur with the other folks who note the simplcity of this “simple rules” structure, from which rich exchanges often emerge. CC is one method in the spectrum of respectful dialogue. I would urge NCDD to assume the stewardship. My own sense is that the energy behind CC waned a bit in recent years, but that the enthusiasm of the host-practitioner community continues. NCDD should not re-brand CC, but, as others have noted, NCDD staff and volunteers can organize and energize it. I’d be willing to participate in work on this. Thanks!

  15. John Backman says:

    What a great conversation. As I read through the comments on neutrality–particularly Regina’s point about this being the first of many successions, and Cameron’s about having to define criteria–a question keeps arising for me: What exactly are we trying to do here, and how will it serve D&D as a whole? I think you can make the case that preserving methods simply for their own sake–no matter how wonderful the method, as Conversation Cafe is–is not in line with NCDD’s role in the field. However, stewarding Conversation Cafe to introduce more people to D&D, and leveraging the Cafe experience to acquaint said people with the vast range of D&D options available, is a completely different story. By doing so, we draw more interest to the notion of D&D, and we gain more visibility for all the practices therein. For me, that qualifies Cafe stewardship as “serving D&D as a whole” bigtime. Does that make any sense?

    • David Kimball says:


      You ask how this would serve D&D as a whole. It would introduce the D&D world to the laymen in the world. Right now, I don’t see that D&D offers me, a laymen, many opportunities to get involved. It seems to me to be a network of professionals. Conversation Cafe would give us lay people an opportunity to get engaged in Dialogue (I don’t believe that CC is that good for deliberation) and thus perhaps introduced to other tools in D&D for lay people.

      So to me, the question becomes, Does D&D want to continue to be just a network of professionals talking about D&D concepts and principles? Or does it want to be become actively engaged in assisting non-professionals in the community to become engaged in the actions of dialogue?

      There are pros and cons on both sides of the coin.

      • John Backman says:

        I hear you, David. It strikes me that engaging more actively in supporting non-professionals would advance the overall goal of introducing more people to dialogue and deliberation in general. The more “lay leaders” we have, the more practitioners we have (professional and lay), and the wider the field can cast its net.

      • Playing the latter role you describe, David, is certainly aligned with NCDD’s vision statement:

        “NCDD envisions a future in which all people–regardless of income, position, background or education–are able to engage regularly in lively, thoughtful, and challenging discussions about what really matters to them, in ways that have a positive impact on their lives and their world. We envision a society in which systems and structures support and advance inclusive, constructive dialogue and deliberation.”

  16. Hi, all,
    Although I am a fan of the Conversation Cafe approach and understand the merits of the case that Sandy makes in favor of NCDD becoming the primary steward of CC, my sense is that doing so would be a very risky move. As many others have noted, one of NCDD’s key strengths is its neutrality regarding which of the “streams of practice” provides the optimal entry point for D&D approaches to public problem solving. Once you go down the path of promoting one “stream” — let alone a specific method — NCDD may be on a slippery slope of losing its sterling reputation as an honest broker of the deliberations within our community of practice about how best to advance this work.

    In addition, although NCDD does indeed possess may of the skill sets necessary to promote and steward the implementation of CC (not to mention many other D&D methods), the work of being a steward/promoter/coach is, in essence, very different from that of building and maintaining a robust community of practice.

    • John Backman says:

      Patrick, could you say more about the difference in skill sets? That may add more definition to the challenges involved.

      • John, Thank you for your follow-up question. Please excuse my brevity; I’m working against a project deadline but thought it important to chime in on this discussion. Here are a few of the skills that may be important if NCDD assumes the role of stewarding Conversation Cafe.

        If an important part of NCDD’s role would be responding to inquiries from local organizers of CC’s, NCDD would likely need to be able to:
        – assess whether the process is optimal for the local organizer’s issue, context, and goals
        – assess whether the local organizers have the skills and resources to implement a successful CC. If you don’t do this, you may waste their and your time.
        – coach them as they develop discussion questions
        – coach them on everything from logistics, to basic facilitation, to communications
        – provide advice on how to assess the quality and impact of their work

        All this becomes a bit less difficult if NCDD decided that they would not be in the business of responding to inquiries and instead focus on creating advice and tools that others can access and use.

        I hope this helps!

      • Pat – as you might imagine, I have no interest in NCDD playing that kind of coaching/ technical assistance role. Our approach would be to make the network that exists around Conversation Cafe (which is small but could easily be grown) into an open network that people can tap into for advice. And to encourage that network to develop the tools needed to help people know if they have the resources and skills to do a Conversation Cafe or not.

        Currently CC has 1200 or so people on its one-way announcement list. One of the first things we’d do is put those folks on a two-way listserv (true to NCDD’s style) so they can communicate with each other easily, and start publicizing that listserv for others who want to join in.

        We’d take a network-building approach to this, rather than a customer service approach. CCs are simple enough that I think that’s a viable framework.

    • Pat – thank you for chiming in. I take these considerations very seriously. Let me ask you… could you see a way of NCDD going forward with this opportunity in a way that doesn’t compromise our integrity and neutrality?

      What if we were to do something like this… NCDD keeps the CC process alive by transferring ownership of the website and eventually having Andy or someone else revamp that, strengthening ties between the NCDD site and the CC site (particularly encouraging those new to D&D to get a taste of dialogue by hosting a Conversation Cafe — among other things we recommend like attending a training, reading beginner-friendly guides, checking out the Engagement Streams Framework, etc.).

      We then find volunteers from within the CC network and NCDD network to strengthen Conversation Cafe’s social media presence, and keep its twitter feed, FB presence, etc. going through volunteers (or perhaps a p/t staff person).

      In the meantime, NCDD creates some kind of map tool or separate website with a map tool that finds a way to map facilitators (of all methods), interested participants or laypeople interested in hosting, and D&D projects that people can participate in. This is a “dream project” of mine, and though it requires a unique skill set and funding, it would be a neutral space — not focused on any particular method or stream. We might use Conversation Cafes as a top suggestion for newbies or for people responding to a timely issue that need to talk NOW, but we’d provide info and guidance on using other methods as well.

      Basically, with this structure, CCs are kept alive, and NCDD moves forward with some things we’ve found challenging in the past that CC’s make easier, and everyone in the field benefits depending on how much they participate in new map.

      We can talk about the feasibility of this idea later — for now, I’m really curious is this approach would address the concern about keeping NCDD neutral.

      • I scanned this discussion last night and was delighted this morning to see how my smart colleagues made most of the comments I was thinking about. The observations I’m about to share are from a place of being a fan of CC but not a member of the CC community so I cannot sense the sentiment of that 1000+ people.

        My takeaway is that NCDD should definitely help CC during this transition time. And, I also think we do not yet know enough about how to structure the optimal long term solution for CC. An interested work group could be recruited from NCDD and CC networks to develop a loose “scaffolding” of assumptions and objectives that would be a tool for monitoring/reflecting on the NCDD/CC partnership to assess how it’s meeting shared goals. And then we adjust from there.

        For CC, the goal as I understand is a stable home and the ability to expand users. What I think NCDD is looking for:

        1 – An “intuitive” newbie friendly tool that we can point newcomers to so they can experience dialogue as soon as they are interested.
        2 – A “quick response” tool that newcomers and us old hands can all use if there is a shared issue of interest.
        3 – An “entry tool” that we can use with strategic partners who want to be able to field multiple dialogues across large networks (such as libraries).

        We are making assumptions that NCDD newcomers will be able to indeed use CC easily and that the CC network (as activated by a Sandy/Andy turbo-charged site and listserv) can be a source of technical assistance for people who need more than what NCDD can provide. Another question that has come up is whether this partnership compromises NCDD neutrality. As a paid practitioner who uses a mix of other tools, I personally do not feel that making CC available to “amateurs” is either competition or favoritism. From my marketing days. we call this “building the category.” But again that’s an assumption we’d want to be able to revisit.

        Net, get a few interested players to cull the wisdom from this conversation (and whether there’s a parallel CC conversation), set up the partnership – and then get the CC listserv in a place where they are feeling ownership over the experiment too.

      • Rick Lent says:

        I like the Sandy’s dream project and the idea of creating a map of how methods relate, with some methods, like CCs, being a simple, foundational method.

        Mapping methods can help us learn and communicate the relationships and comparative strengths across methods. In time we may self-organize our way to greater simplicity! So many of today’s methods are linked by core principles. I like to think that in another decade or two we will be more aware as a society of how we can talk together best. (I sometimes wonder if the current proliferation of methods may someday be seen as the fourth era in how society learned to talk together…after the circle, the forum and Parliamentary procedure).

      • Hey, Rick — We are looking at the task of training a large number of agency staff and community members to convene large group public engagement events in communities across a city.

        In our own large group design work, we freely enmesh a whole range of “processes” as we see appropriate. We are currently discussing how to teach others how to do this. We are facing a bit of a dichotomy between whether to teach individual processes (e.g. future search, open space, appreciative inquiry, dynamic facilitation, etc) and how much to simply give people an experience of an effectively designed large group process.

        Generally, the most successful method for teaching people that we have found is to involve them as participants in a large group design in which they can address real issues that have meaning to them. This way, they see how these designs produce useful results and learn the designs by experiencing them directly. If they get enough of this, do they need to know that this segment is called this and that segment is called that?

        In the course of our conversation about how to achieve our training goal, one thing that came up was the downside of having a bunch of different processes and trying to say this is good for this and that is good for that. We imagined that in 40 years we will probably not even think in terms of this process or that, but simply think in terms of good public engagement, working from the deeper understandings and principles of group engagement out of which these process have each emerged.

        I have a feeling that when we say that one process or another serves one end or another (which may be true to some degree), the differentiation between processes is more a result of our feeling comfortable or attached to one process or another. We have been able to apply all kinds of process to all kinds of needs in a very fluid manner.

        I’m sure that my perspective here is influenced by my early experience with large group process which came through Marv Weisbord, who, while he does work with and train people in a specific process (future search), provides an historical perspective on every element of that process which surfaces and provides a deeper understanding about how each element of future search grew out of the experiences of many and from deeper understandings of human engagement and interaction. In my experience, the community of people who are trained by Marv in future search, are much more agile in their use of process than others whose entry into process is through other doors. I am sure that this is because Marv brings a much deeper understanding of process than a “how to” or “what for” approach brings.

        I think there are some deeper questions here about how we use process, how we present it to the world and how we train people in process skills. I think this is an important issue and challenge to our community.

        To what degree is our differentiation of process useful and at what point does it become an impediment to a deeper learning and understanding of good group engagement?

        Can we actually articulate deeper process principles? Do we think they exist? Do we know how to work from these principles and go beyond
        form to deeper levels of engagement?”

        Is there some learning curve in group engagement that starts with individual processes and grows into a deeper understanding? Is this assumption a barrier or benefit to learning? We do see people getting stuck in one process or another and missing out on gaining a deeper understanding of group engagement.

        When Peggy Holman was compiling her last book on group process I talked with her about contributing something. I told her I didn’t want to write a chapter on “my” process; I thought there were too many process already and the world didn’t need another. I actually think some people coined a process simply to be able to include it as a chapter. I said I was more interested in writing a chapter that struggled with the principles underlying all the processes in all the chapters. It never came to be, but . . .

        What do others think about this?


  17. Sandy – Thank you, this is very helpful.
    It sounds as though NCDD’s first priority should be to sort out the utility and feasibility of the “dream project” you describe. At first glance, I like what you are suggesting; it would be a tremendous resource. It also sounds as though it fits nicely within NCDD’s current mission and maintains your status as a neutral convener.
    Conversation Cafe as a concept and practice is strong enough to live on without centralized care and feeding for as long as it would take NCDD to sort out what it should do, re: the dream project.

    • Sandy – I’m relieved to hear that you don’t imagine a coaching / technical assistance role for NCDD. That kind of work is needed, but as you know it would be a huge project to implement. … That said, the more modest network building approach makes sense. It now seems as though the central question is whether NCDD’s taking on the network building/maintaining responsibility for CC would be a “one-off,” or whether you move ahead on creating something like your “dream project” to make this type of support available to a wider range of methods.
      Sorry, but I gotta sign off for today. An article-writing deadline looms!

  18. Arlot Hall says:

    How we do it needs discussion. Not doing it should not be an option. I have learned from 5 years of attempting to form an NIF/Kettering Center for Public Life that a simple elegant method for engaging people is essential. I have also found libraries to be the most successful location for our efforts and I agree with the suggestions to also consider how we might use the method as a variation or in combination with another for living room conversations.

    • Arlot – one thing that I want to be clear about is that NCDD’s intention would not be to see other processes replaced with Conversation Cafe’s. In your case, would it have been easier to have been able to use a simple, streamlined process like CCs to “hook” people, warm them up, or get them on board for National Issues Forums? THAT would be our intent, and I wonder what your take is on this.

  19. Dennis Boyer says:

    I didn’t have time to read all the posts, but share general sentiment I detected about value of Conversation Cafes. What resources are needed to “do a good job” here? Any way this can be on a self-sustaining funding model? Could it attract donors to “endow” program continuance? I’ve been burned in the past by “seed money” representations that convert into perpetual fundraising appeals. Might be a good idea to develop some operational models and a perspectus?

  20. I think it’s a great idea, though I realize I am making a bunch of assumptions about how this would be done and imagine it could end up being a challenge in various ways.

    I see the work we are doing as a kind of sum of our parts, rather than a bunch of parts competing with each other. If it is taken up in this spirit as a way to support a piece of the NCDD continuum and not taken up as “the” NCDD process. I can’t see any issue. It is a good way into a broad range of process approaches for people new to group process.

    A first flash, also, was that it might be supported by volunteers from within the NCDD community. If expectations come with it that NCDD is going to provide funding and paid staffing, it could end up being an energy drain. I think there needs to be no expectations in this regard.

    It’s kind of a natural in that it is a web based support for face-to-face engagement and in that, perhaps a model for appropriate use of web technology. As many know, I am strongly opposed to seeing the web as a replacement for face-to-face engagement and if the web is going to move into the group process arena, supporting face-to-face approaches is a very appropriate place for it. In this way, it could be a good model for other web contributions to group process.


    • Courtney Breese says:

      Kenoli, to your point about funding and staffing – Sandy clarified above that NCDD is not interested in being a coach or technical assistance resource for CCs, but is interested in ensuring that the network stays active and that others can access CC resources (especially newbies as it is very approachable). Outside of the technical work that would need to be done for this to happen (website and listserv work, which NCDD staff would need to do out of necessity), perhaps much of the more active efforts towards stewarding could come from volunteers – CC champions, if you will. This is an interesting idea, if people are willing to help out. Does anyone else have thoughts about this?

      • Courtney — Sorry, didn’t read through this whole stream. I’m in line with NCDD not being a “coach or technical assistance resource for CC” or generally . . . maybe. I don’t see NCDD doing D&D, though it has done a great job of facilitating people who are doing D&D in the ways it has done that.

        In a more recent post, I outlined a few “highest hopes” ideas for expanding this function, similar to how it might take on the CC project as a facilitator of the project, not a facilitator of individual CCs.

        In the end, any expansive initiatives are going to have to come from the network, not NCDD “central,” though NCDD central could play a great role in facilitating and supporting broader efforts, in spirit and, possibly, materially, as it is able.


    • Kenoli – all your assumptions are spot-on, and I love your whole comment!

      YES to this being done in a spirit that doesn’t take it up as “the” NCDD process (yuck to that) but as a way to support entry into a broad range of process approaches.

      YES to hoping the effort could be supported by volunteers from the NCDD community! Agreed that expectations for funding and staffing must be kept low.

      YES to the idea of providing web-based support to face-to-face engagement.

  21. John Backman says:

    To those of you who have raised concerns, particularly about neutrality, allow me to pose a question: What if we did this on a limited-time trial basis–a year, say–and then (and perhaps throughout that year) have this same kind of discussion before renewing our commitment to the idea? I have no idea whether such an arrangement would be workable, or even acceptable to all interested parties; I’m just throwing it out for consideration.

  22. I think John’s idea is good. In addition, what about looking for opportunities to provide supports for other areas of work related to NCDD’s purpose. Conversation Cafe is easy as it is essentially hosting and maintaining a web site.

    I’d like to think of the Conversation Cafe move as an expansive move that can catalyze even more expansiveness. In the end here, if we could think in terms of pooling our efforts to support many different approaches, rather than each going in many different directions, maybe we could have the kind of impact we would like to have.

    I think this would have to be done in an “agnostic” fashion (as much as I hate the the jargon nature of that word), i.e. embracing all approaches and not trying to control or pin things down. As facilitators, we should know the importance of divergence/convergence in group process. I think we are still in the divergent phase, that is we are bringing lots of things to the table as we try out new approaches, discover more and more about group engagement, build and expand our skill sets, explore and open up new possibilities, go down blind alleys and more. As Sam Kaner points out, it is important to stay in the “groan zone,” staying with divergence long enough to to allow us to discover where convergences naturally develops. Until we do this, trying to force convergence, to pin things down too quickly will only serve to undermine our larger efforts.

    Some expansive ideas:

    • Open up explorations into ways NCDD could provide online supports for various face-to-face projects. There are a lot of efforts to create online “process” applications. What about pulling them together and thinking generically here to generate some online tools that could support people taking a full range of approaches to face-to-face group engagement.

    • Help develop funding and staff infrastructure to support trainings and workshops for facilitators, community members, government officials and others run by NCDD members with expertise in various areas of group process.

    • Develop facilities in various parts of the country that can be used by NCDD members to host trainings, activities, events, group engagements and more (libraries, archives, audio-visual studios, web hosting services, and even more)

    NCDD as a national interface for many different efforts: These kinds of things are difficult for individuals and smaller nonprofits that don’t have the leverage that national groups have with foundations and other funding sources and yet much of the best work in our field is being done by individuals and small groups that have not yet cut themselves off at the knees to get funding. If the Koch Brothers can attempt to control political activities with their money, maybe we can find some super wealthy that would like to put their money to use supporting an entirely different approach to public engagement. NCDD could be an interface for a national effort. Twitter just created over 2000 millionaires in San Francisco, many of whom have ideals related to their early experience at Twitter that have little outlet.

    We are connected with several agencies and organizations at the local, state and national level that would be ready to do major efforts with new public engagement approaches if there were funding ad resources to do it. I’m sure others are, too. Let’s work together to open up opportunities everywhere. Let’s influence the world with the same energy the Koch brothers are trying to control government. Let’s open all doors.


  23. Tom Murray says:

    I’m excited that NCDD is stepping forward to support one of its high quality under-the-umbrella efforts, and CC is a very important tool in the D&D toolbox. I echo others in concern about neutrality and setting precedents, as there are so many important methods in the D&D community. Also, this brings to mind a conversation about how organizations will need to change to thrive in the future: namely that increasing demands for flexibility, fluidity, and constant evolution will require that organizations of people be born *and dissipate* with more ease (ouch!). Does stewarding one method this way make it less likely that it will evolve and merge with others in on ongoing creative response to current realities? I have no idea, and also don’t want us to miss the opportunity to provide continuity for a valuable civic resource to prevent the dissolution of the social and intellectual capital accumulated there.

    One suggestion for a middle way would be to not have NCDD be an official Steward (which would make it politically difficult to un-Steward to make way for other things) but to have a system of more officially supporting “Fully Endorsed” (or something) organizations within NCDD. The NCDD can decide on an annual basis how to allocate serious resources to a set of Fully Endorsed (independent) entities–which seems a more flexible approach than become “The” Steward.

    • Courtney Breese says:

      Tom, thank you for weighing in, and for thinking a bit about a way to address this concern about neutrality. I’m curious to hear a bit more about this idea of endorsement. Do you envision this to be intended for entities and/or processes which seem at risk or in need of additional support and visibility? If it is intended to generally support processes and entities, I think NCDD would be expected to support most (if not all), which would dilute the impact that endorsement may have.

    • Tom Murray says:

      Also, I mentioned this an earlier email, but, unless I missed this info, there are a number of aspects of Stewarding that I’m unclear about that would greatly inform my opinion, and perhaps others. Though it may sound like notes of caution, I would support almost any outcome, but am advocating for all of the relevant information to be under consideration in the discussions. My questions include:

      – Is the CC process in the public domain? If there are intellectual property issues what are they?
      – What does it mean to Steward? Is it about offering the NCDD brand and nonprofit umbrella (only)? Involve NCDD funds and/or staff support? Does it involve priority treatment in terms of information/outreach (email, web space, etc.)? Is it about priority referral when people come to NCDD looking for help? Would NCDD do fund raising for CC?
      – Would any income generated through CC, via facilitation processes or fund-raising, go to NCDD?
      – To what extent are we supporting the process vs. the individuals who facilitate it and/or those who ran the CC organization?
      – What is the approximate size (and percentage) of NCDD resources (money, staff, info-real-estate etc.) that would be used to Steward something like CC, and, given that, what is the maximum number of organizations or methods NCDD could Steward?
      – If NCDD Stewards CC, would this allow the ‘traditional form’ to be adapted and re-mixed, or would there be an agreement to keep to the purity of the form if it was called CC?

      • Tom Murray says:

        Basically I’m unclear about whether CC is an organization with people or just a methodology with supportive documents. This also has me thinking about AmericaSpeaks, which closed its doors recently. Is NCDD involved in somehow keeping some of their materials alive and available?

      • Courtney Breese says:

        CC is a method and a network of people using the method. NCDD has been asked to consider helping the method and network carry on (via the CC website and listserv at the very least).

        As for AmericaSpeaks, I do believe Sandy indicated a willingness to assist with keeping their facilitator network active, as well as post and share resources on the NCDD website. But she can speak more to that.

      • My brain hurts looking at all those questions, Tom! 🙂 Let me start by saying a few things…

        1. I don’t think NCDD would, should or could start stewarding multiple methodologies that need homes. As always, though, we’ll archive resources (we have LOTS of great AmericaSpeaks resources on the site). As always, we’ll offer our listservs for anyone in the field who wants to keep a group of innovators in this field connected (we’ve offered this to AmericaSpeaks, to host their facilitators network so those folks can keep in contact with one another and potentially be tapped into). As always, we’ll share announcements, attempt to collect success stories, convene leaders, etc. These are things we do for everyone in the network.

        2. Conversation Cafe is different because it’s kind of a baseline dialogue method. It’s got the simple-simple ground rules, the talking object so people take turns and don’t cross-talk constantly (making the facilitation/host role easier for a newbie), it can be used for any topic, etc. NCDD doesn’t need to manage budgets, tech contractors, clients, etc. to make Conversation Cafe’s available to the world (like we would for more complex processes like AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting). We could in fact just look to keep CC’s alive as a resource; a method that anyone who comes to our site might learn about and use.

        3. The reason we’re exploring “stewarding” CCs is because the simplicity of the model (and its open source nature — no intellectual property or trademark issues) could allow us to meet some needs we’ve seen expressed by our members in recent years. Namely, it’s a gateway for more people to “try” dialogue and get hooked, and with NCDD providing materials, hosting the website and keeping in touch with participants, we’d make sure it really is used as a gateway to other, deeper approaches.

      • A few more specifics…

        – There is no legalese and little ego involved in CCs. The current steward and the co-creators are all happy to see things carried on, no strings attached. Adaptation and remixing would be encouraged.
        – This would take staff support certainly. I would do some network-building and create and promote a listserv for Cafe hosts (CC gave us their list of 1200 already). Andy would revamp the CC website. CC’s current steward has said she would make a donation to NCDD to help support the transition (not sure how much). We’d need additional funding depending on what we decided to do. A part-time staffer might do the trick. I’d hope to garner volunteer help from the NCDD community, and from the existing CC community.
        – We would do our best not to give priority treatment to CCs in terms of referrals. We currently give referrals based solely on whether an organization/method matches the need expressed, and generally just refer people to resources like the Engagement Streams framework and Beginner’s Guide so they can decide for themselves what’s best.
        – I don’t see CCs making money for NCDD. Perhaps we can get funding for a larger infrastructure for rapid response in the field. But no one has had luck doing that yet!

      • Sandy — I think your thinking on hosting the CC site is sound. It’s a good entry level cafe approach and a could be useful as an element in a more complete community process. I haven’t been on the site for a while, but I think it provides a useful tool for scheduling community conversations. A group could use the scheduling element and conduct the conversations as they like, which makes it a kind of general purpose tool as well.

        If you think NCDD “central” plus some volunteer time can make it work, I say “Go for it!”

        I’m impressed by your ongoing efforts to shepherd the entire community. Good work.


      • Kenoli – would you take a look at my last comment (at the bottom of the thread, below John Stephens’ comment)? I’d like your take on this.

  24. John Stephens says:

    Good dialogue demands alternative viewpoints. Thus, I purposely offer a set of “black hat” ideas [RE: Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats], and want to sharpen the choices, building on some of the exchange of Patrick Scully, Sandy H. and others (March 11th thread).

    a) NCDD should not provide “life support” when a particular model of dialogue may become less prominent or even go away. Much in the vein of evolution, some adaptations may not be sustainable. Everyone can learn – organizationally, conceptually, etc. – from something ending. Shepherds realize the some sheep will be claimed by wolves [just to be provocative].

    b) NCDD would step into a form of endorsing or “owning” one dialogue model. This sets a precedent for other models and organizations seeking similar endorsements (per thoughts from Cameron Kelly-Johnson). While the dialogue and network sophisticates may distinguish between “shepherding” and “endorsing” a lot of other folks would not. Per Sandy’s view, I think many would see this as “Oh, you need to start with Conversation Café – after all, NCDD is shepherding/endorsing it.”

    c) This would stifle the creativity and adaptation among the practitioner-academic streams in NCDD. Give it time for a new home or network to develop to continue Conversation Café without changing NCDD’s core value of neutraily among methods.

    d) Sandy’s clarification/demurring about NCDD “stewarding” multiple dialogue and deliberation tools underscores three things: 1. A special place for Conversation Café adds tension among members, per item (b); 2. Presumes that Conversation Café is “simple” and thus somehow more simple or accessible than other tools; 3. That the challenge being able to respond quickly to crises and conflicts as they arise [per Sandy] – rests more in supporting and publicizing a simple tool than in better networking with faith, community, civic media and other advocates and potential hosts for “hot topic/crisis” response via dialogue. In short, NCDD would not be focusing energy in the right area.

    Yours in seeking good dialogue on this question.
    John Stephens, Durham NC

    • What if this discussion were not about NCDD taking on the stewardship of Conversation Cafe, but was about the NCDD community identifying the most basic steps for having a quick low-bar dialogue (which I think would look strikingly like a Conversation Cafe!) so that we could help people who were brand new to this work get started quickly and easily?

      Is part of the resistance here the named method? I’ve been wondering about that.

      Here’s what I’d like to see:

      After the next horrible shooting or national race-motivated incident (for example), NCDD as a community was able to respond quickly, armed with a simple dialogue tool that anyone can use to self-organize a small dialogue in their community. Not only that, but we’d provide resources for everyone who wants to host a conversation; resources that tell people what they’re doing is called “dialogue,” and there is a whole community of innovators and menu of approaches they can learn more about — some of which will help them get to decisions, resolve conflicts, or help them work together to take action. Potentially we could start a larger database of people who are interested in dialogue and deliberation, who we can then help to get trained in how to do various methods (by connecting them to you guys!), or tap into as potential participants, supporters, or facilitators when you run a program in their community.

      I have been seeing Conversation Cafe as a key piece of the puzzle in meeting this need and building the infrastructure and capacity that our members have seemed to be calling out for. But how might this happen without stewarding Conversation Cafe? Maybe we could shift the question? Maybe Conversation Cafe does not need to be stewarded, but only kept in our back pocket as a tool that is sometimes the best fit (like all tools)? Perhaps there’s a way for NCDD to begin to fill this need for infrastructure and rapid-response capacity without doing something that makes us look like we are favoriting a particular method?

      • Ellen Knutson says:

        As I sit here now I am truly ambivalent to whether or not NCDD takes on a stewardship role of CC. However, I do think Sandy’s comment about shifting the question is probably a fruitful move.

        As I’ve read through the comments here and on email one question I kept coming back to is: Does not taking on a stewardship role of CC precludes NCDD from helping people respond to a national crisis or offer newbies a place to start? It seems to me that there are several processes that are easy to “hit into” and that CC is just one. Also, I think that people looking to get started will be interested in more coaching and technical support than NCDD is set up for (or indeed wants to do).

        Maybe an approach would be try to categorize the various processes with level of facilitation/convening experience necessary (novice, intermediate, expert).

        It seems to me that the rapid response part is facilitated by provided more than pointing to a dialogue process. Some things that come to mind include providing: kind(s) of discussion guides (questions, background etc) that could be used in a variety of processes; a space to connect with others who may be holding dialogues; a space to report back on dialogues; collecting ways for people to get further involved… I’m sure the list goes on.

  25. The other day, Sandy, you described CC as a “baseline” for community conversations. Great thought. Here’s my current proposal for NCDD: What about doing a side-by-side comparison of — how many methods? — and then doing what we can — in an inclusive collaborative process — to determine the “common ground” of the guiding principles that hold “all” these NCDD-member processes together?

    This would take some care, and clear thinking — but it might be an exciting example of NCDD using formal NCDD methods to determine the common ground of the entire NCDD movement.

    If that could happen — that might be another way to create a universal baseline “product” that the NCDD membership — and the “USA Rapid Response” network might get behind. And the “good method” that emerged here — would be an open door to other groups and facilitators that might want to be networked through this same universal process.

    What is the common ground of all NCDD methods? Can that be defined, using careful systematic methods? To me, this feels powerful — and truly generic — opening a path to build a yet broader and more inclusive and more influential alliance of “good practice”.

    We all meet on common ground, base our work together on common ground, move the USA and the world toward common ground — and we have clear open pathways for anyone or any group that wants to link through this common ground alliance….

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