The Day I “Got It”

My original awareness of conversation as a fundamental and generative force  in our collective lives came from a source and a setting that I could never have anticipated. It was the innocent curiosity of two corporate leaders… 

The year was 1993 and World Café had not yet appeared in our lives. I was sitting in the living room of our home in Mill Valley, California, with John Browning and Frank Gonzalez, leaders of a regional Sales organization within a major U.S. corporation. They wanted to build their organization as a community. How did you do it in the farm workers’ movement, they asked? What really is at the heart of community development, anyway?

Of course, the house meetings! The house meetings were the basic unit for building community in the farm workers’ movement. Cesar or another farm worker organizer would ask a local family to host and convene a conversation among their friends. As workers shared tortillas and bean suppers, they shared the “if only’s” about their lives and imagined the impossible. They began, through dialogue, to ask the “what if” questions. And from the “what if’s” came the “why nots!”

Two or three members of the first house meeting would then decide to host another house meeting with a small circle of friends in their own homes. The ideas from one conversation would seed several others.

As I stopped to think about it, the light bulb went on. All these years I’d somehow believed it was the phone calls, the lists, the disciplined follow up, and the mass meetings that got people mobilized for action. Of course these activities were important to success. But was there something else, something underneath all of that?

Suddenly I felt as if I’d been hit over the head! Why hadn’t I seen it?

It was the conversations themselves in those thousands of house meetings that actually did the organizing. It was not us, the organizers, that did it. It was the power of the conversations themselves and the meanings that people took from them that did the organizing. When those conversations were really alive, people couldn’t help but act. In concert with others, they discovered the capacity to transform their lives.

I heard myself saying to these two corporate executives, “It’s conversation that’s the heart of it. We can attribute our successes to all kinds of techniques and other key factors, but it’s actually the dialogue, reflection, and shared meaning, along with the seeding and linking of the conversations, and people knowing that their conversations are connected, that’s the core process for co-evolving large-scale social change.

Conversation lies beneath organizing and strategizing!   

When I look back at other large-scale change movements—the salons that birthed the French Revolution, the sewing circles that nurtured the birth of the American experiment in democracy, the study circles that transformed Scandinavian society early in the century—all embody the same underlying conversational pattern.

This was such a powerful personal insight about conversation as a co-evolutionary force  that I’ve dedicated my life to deepening both the theory (there’s a paper on it that I’ve contributed to this blog) and the conversational practices (both the World Café and others) that can spread this awareness as on behalf of conscious evolution in relation to the collective challenges of our time.


  1. i just received this link from Stephanie Ryan of Offerings and have just read your PhD thesis. I was really bowled over by how synchronicity seems to be working as “the patterns connect”.

    Your World Cafe conversations network is really in synch with some work we are doing to “orchestrate” conversations around important thought leader’s books using the memes of the authors to catalyze productive conversations.

    I hope to find my way to you and World Cafe to learn more.

    With admiration,


  2. Dear Dave,

    Welcome to the conversation!

    I especially loved your noticing of synchronicity and the connecting of patterns…

    I’m curious about the work you are doing, and will follow up with you personally on that.

    In the meantime, I invite you to subscribe to the World Café newsletter (there’s a link on the front page of both this blog and the web site) we’re about to launch, and to explore the new re-designed World Café website.


  3. “It as the power of the conversations themselves and the meanings that people took from them that did the organizing.”

    The meaning that people brought to the conversations also fostered transformation.The personal sharing depends upon the safety of the group or couple conversing.I have spent much of my career honing and using the tools for safety and empowerment.
    The Cafe seems to be such a safe “place” to bring some of my thoughts to light. Thansk you. Phil

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