Monday, 22 August 2011

Event - Gurteen Knowledge Cafe

A short stroll down Charing Cross road to the PwC offices in Embankment Place after work on Wednesday 17th August led me to my first Gurteen Knowledge Cafe.

I was pleasantly surprised to see around 50 people gathering for what turned out to be a very enjoyable and thought provoking evening. David Gurteen had difficulty dragging us away from our coffee and networking to get things started, but once we sat around our ‘cafe style’ tables we soon settled down.

David introduced us to Theodore Zeldin and his book “Conversation; how talk can change your life” and took a quote from the beginning of the book as the inspiration for the evening.David reworked the quotation into three questions. Rather than the normal format of having 3 rounds all discussing the same question, with participants moving between tables for each round, on this occasion we discussed a different question in each round:
  • How does conversation change the way we see the world?
  • Can conversation change the world for the better?
  • What do we need to do to have such conversations?
During the first round my table first discussed what made a conversation, and concluded that it had to include dialog between at least two people (or could be a “trialogue”... or more!) and that participants needed to be open and willing to change their opinion. The success or otherwise of this would depend on various factors, including culture, risk, trust, and past backgrounds and vulnerabilities.

In the second round we developed the theme of trust a bit further, with some round the table feeling that trust could only be developed over time as relationships deepened, while others felt they could instinctively trust someone within minutes of meeting them. We also considered ‘what is better?’ Better for some people might be worse for others (ie, what is ‘desirable’ or ‘good’ can depend on cultural background, political views, ethics, etc - there are few universals).

We also thought about the participants in the conversation being as important as the content of the conversation itself - whether to influence politicians or business managers, or to bring people from opposing communities together in neutral space for a conversation about an everyday topic, to allow both parties to see their common humanity.

My final group talked about what elements were needed to have effective conversations that would lead to change. We were on the whole against the very formal ‘conversations’ that tended to take place in businesses or government - where board room tables, set agendas, and group politics all constrain people.

The last 15-20 minutes of the evening were spent in one large group circle, continuing the conversation, about conversations, in the round. For conversations to be able to change things, whether in a small way locally or in big, important ways, the importance of participants approaching the conversation predisposed to change their mind was emphasised again. The best conversations were felt to be spontaneous shared dialogues to discover a new truth.

All rather heady stuff for 9.00pm in the evening after a full day at work! A quick sprint across Waterloo bridge to the station, and lovely views of the illuminated South Bank, rounded off the night nicely.

If anyone is interested in learning how to run a Knowedge Cafe themselves, David Gurteen is running a Cafe Workshop on September 13th in London.  See here for more details.

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