Conversation Au Lait

In Seattle coffee shops, people from all walks of life talk about what matters to them

| July/August 2002 Issue


The idea is simple: Strangers drop in at a Seattle coffeehouse, sit down at a table, and, following a few simple ground rules, talk about the issues of the day. Right-wingers exchange opinions with left-wingers and moderates—without Bill O’Reilly–style bullying or histrionics. Homeless people talk with lawyers, homemakers, and computer geeks. Mutual respect grows, friendships are fostered. Participants are encouraged to return to the café the next time a discussion is scheduled there—or to take part in many others around the city. It’s an off-the-cuff, free-form salon that doesn’t ask for any commitment other than good manners and heartfelt participation while you’re at the table. And it could change the world, says Vicki Robin, who dreamed up the idea. Robin, a Seattle-based pioneer in the voluntary simplicity movement, is probably best known as the co-author of Your Money or Your Life, a best-selling guide to living better by spending less. She says the idea for conversation cafés began as an attempt to take the ideas of personal transformation in the book to a new level. The nine-step plan outlined in Your Money or Your Life relies, in part, on simple strategies for saving and investing. But the most important steps in the plan, she says, call for deeper self-examination: "It’s not so much about frugality as about reflecting on your behavior in light of your values. So how do you create a more reflective culture?" Last summer, in her quest to bring about engaged self-reflection, Robin got together with some friends to experiment with ways to produce meaningful conversation. Eventually she hit upon the "conversation café" model, a convenient drop-in form of salon that she describes as a hybrid of the council (a Native American tradition in which participants speak in turn, without interruption) and a back-and-forth dialogue. Participants sign on to ground rules (bring genuine energy to the table, agree to listen closely, don’t strive to "win") that promote honesty and active participation—and the conversation flows from there. "They’re not there to market to each other, or organize each other into campaigns. They’re not there to lecture," Robin says. Instead, they’re encouraged to reflect, and to rethink their own assumptions. "That spaciousness to actually think—about your premises, your projects, and about what’s important—opens up possibilities," she adds. Each conversation café has a broad theme (community, war, or democracy, for example). Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking; the first time around, telling their names and sharing "what is in their hearts and on their minds regarding the theme." The second time around, each person goes a little deeper on the theme. From there, the conversation takes off spontaneously and sometimes with surprising results. For Keith McCandless, a 46-year-old business consultant who has participated in a dozen conversation cafés, it’s the sense of surprise and connection that keeps him coming back. At one café, he sat with a corporate lawyer, a bag lady, a small-business man from Iran, and an illiterate man who wandered in off the street. By the end of the evening they were cheerfully plotting to convince Martha Stewart to feature Afghan birka-making in her magazine. Other conversations, he says, are more profound—and more practical. But always, the meeting of disparate minds is at the heart of the experience. "At the end of the café," he says, "people are in a state of euphoria. They hang around in the café or the parking lot and really don’t want to leave. Some connection occurs." A few months after Robin’s first experimental chat session, terrorists launched their attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The conversation cafés turned out to be an ideal forum for people to sort out their feelings about the event. "People were so saddened and confused about how to move forward," McCandless recalls. "There weren’t a lot of people who had a clear path, so they were open to a conversation in which joint exploration is the purpose." Attendance at the events soared as hundreds of Seattle residents sought clarity in the confusion. The broad range of new participants—including pro-war conservatives, staunch lefties, and a regular contingent of conspiracy theorists—put Robin’s methods to the test. Could diametrically opposing views be reconciled in a 90-minute conversation? In fact, says Robin, the format seemed to help people suspend judgment and "move from a polarized, blindered tradition to a more intelligent, textured, understanding of the whole." Seattle’s growing salon movement climaxed in January, when Robin organized Conversation Week, featuring several days of conversation events that drew participants from across the region and featured "celebrity guests," including several City Council members. To date, Robin has trained more than 60 people to be café hosts, and the idea has spread to half a dozen locations, including Arizona, Toronto, Australia, and the United Kingdom. As the atmosphere of self-reflection that gripped America after the September 11 attacks began to pass, conversation cafés have shifted their focus, becoming more stable, community-building groups that attract repeat participants. Today, there are 20 active cafés in Seattle, meeting weekly or monthly and addressing topics ranging from local leadership to sustainable living. Some members, like McCandless, are self-avowed "café junkies" hooked on the chemistry of conversation and the spirit of optimism fostered by the process. "People get up from the table with hope," Robin says. "You feel less lonely, more supported, more aware. It increases hope, compassion, and intelligence about how to proceed." Can that renewed hope translate into concrete action that will change the world? Robin is convinced that it can. "People can use dialogue to make social change," she says. "As people change their minds, those changed minds go out into their communities and function differently. Social change comes from that transformation." In other words, talk may be cheap (and that’s entirely appropriate for a practice with roots in the voluntary simplicity movement), but focused dialogue, active listening, and the clarity that comes from a new understanding of the world can result in profound changes outside the café.

Joseph Hart is a Minneapolis-based writer and journalist. His book, Down and Out: The Life and Death of Minneapolis' Skid Row, will be published by the University of MInnesota Press in the fall of 2002.