Form groups of 8 to 15 participants for every one lead facilitator.
Instruct everyone to switch off their mobile phones and devices.
Distribute pen and paper to each participant.
Invite each person to write an open-ended question on their paper (without their name.)
When ready, collect all of the questions and read each aloud one by one to your group.
Invite each person to vote on which question the group would like to start with.
As the lead facilitator, create a respectful environment for sharing to help your group explore the complexity of ideas and uncover a deeper understanding of the topic.
Throughout the session, guide your group by:
– Asking open-ended questions based on what the group shares;
– Resisting the urge to share your own opinion; and
– Inviting your group to consider that there are no right or wrong answers.
Most conversations conclude with a natural conclusion when everyone feels that they have had the opportunity to contribute.
If necessary, close with a few moments of reflection.
How To Play Narrative
When I was a student in college, I first starting using this process to hold discussions with my fellow students. Sitting in chairs arranged in a circle in quiet spaces with our favourite drink or snack in hand. We talked about all of the subjects that they didn’t give us time to really dive into in class – religion, love, happiness, war, politics, and more.
It got so popular that I started training other students in the method, and soon after it became a requirement for all incoming freshmen. I was a student training professors in the format I built. That was nearly 16 years ago and I’ve had the opportunity to keep holding sessions each week throughout all that time.
There have been some things I’ve adapted, but for the most part, the core principles are:
Your primary objective is to explore the complexity of ideas and uncover a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, and not walk away with a capital T truth.
The lead facilitator only asks questions and does not share their opinion;
There are no right or wrong opinions, and we are free to agree and disagree respectfully;
Switch off all mobile (cell) phones and electronic devices to be present here with the group; and
A typical session lasts about one hour and when we are in person we set a 15 person maximum. For online sessions I recommend 7-9 participants at the most.
First, you must consider the environment in which your conversation will take place. The following elements are key:
Set up your space so every participant can both see and hear all others. Generally, this means no more than 15 people sitting in chairs in a round or oval configuration in a reasonably quiet setting.
Ideally, there shouldn’t be any tables or structures in the middle of the space. This might seem like a small issue, but an open space is more likely to lead to an open conversation.
All mobile (cell) phones, electronics, and other distractions should be switched off to allow everyone to focus on the conversation.
The session starts by inviting participants to write down an open-ended question on a sheet of paper (not writing their name on it) folding it up and passing it to the lead facilitator (you?)
When ready, read each of the questions aloud and then invite participants to vote for those they like by raising their hands. There are many systems you could implement to identify which are the most preferred questions. On most occasions, the majority rules but you could also tap into the collective wisdom of the group by adopting a decision-making strategy such as Twenty One.
Once a starting question is chosen, pose the question once more to the group to prompt discussion. Then the real fun begins.
Your key role is to approach the conversation as an observer, allowing participants to share and, where necessary, asking open-ended questions along the way.
At all times, keep the core principles (above) in focus as you facilitate a smooth and free-ranging conversation. Remember, this exercise is about exploring the complexity of ideas and seeking a deeper understanding of the chosen topic.
If you feel that the conversation is getting stuck, here are three simple questions you can use to stimulate input and conversation:
Does anyone agree or disagree?
What experiences have you had that made you think the way you do?
Any other ideas, any other thoughts?
Also, be sure to look at the Leadership Tips tab to learn how to manage certain group behaviours, such as aggressive and emotional behaviours.
As your conversation draws to a close, be sure to invite any participants who have a burning question to ask, or simply want an opportunity to share, ie some people need more time to process ideas, or prefer to be invited to contribute rather than jump in.
Aristotle’s Cafe is one big reflection strategy. That said, there is value sometimes to take a few moments at the end of your discussion to reflect on your reflection.
In addition to those described in the Reflection Tips tab, you may wish to pose the following questions to close your session:
Now that we’ve discussed [ enter topic… ] what actions will you take to move towards what you feel you want to create in the world?
We started by asking [ enter topic… ] and I’m not sure we came to any final conclusions. So, I invite you to think more on it this week and come back to our next discussion.
I want to thank everyone for coming to Aristotle’s Cafe, and I invite you to keep thinking about that important question we started with throughout this week.
Practical Leadership Tips
During the discussion, many lead facilitators feel the urge to share their opinion with the group. Resist that urge, and instead, remain neutral and ask open-ended questions. For guidance, check out the Epiphany Question Method.
The most important thing to do during these sessions is to give people the chance to share with one another, disagree and agree with respect.
In case you’re wondering, the focus of Aristotle’s Cafe is on one question, but the discussion often morphs into other topics or areas.
If you like TED Talks, then you’ll love this video from Julia Dahr about How to Have Constructive Discussions – some really useful, practical facilitation advice in her 10-minute presentation. For example, one of her most salient points is to coach participants to engage in the conversation not looking for victory, but progress. That is, in Julia’s words, “to choose curiosity over clash.”
Also, after almost two decades of training facilitators, across a variety of situations, here are answers to the five most frequently asked questions for lead facilitators:
Q1: What’s the best way to set up the environment?
See the Narrative tab for some useful tips.
Q2: How to deal with aggressive participants?
Being talkative is fine, but being aggressive is not. While facilitating, make sure you maintain the pace and control of the conversation. If you do have a participant that is being aggressive, use your body language to turn away from that participant. Some call this the ‘cold shoulder.’ You can also ask things like, “Any other ideas?” so other members of the group can share, and make more aggressive participants pause to give space for those that are a little more passive.
Q3: What if no one talks?
Enjoy the silence while it lasts. It will be a bit uncomfortable or awkward at first, but eventually, someone will speak up. When they do, say thank you and ask if there are any other ideas.
Q4: What if someone gets highly emotional (ie crying)?
It’s not uncommon for certain topics to bring out different emotions in participants. Some of the concepts that come up have close ties to powerful experiences or beliefs that people might have. For that reason, if someone begins to cry or shows sadness, deal with it from a facilitative standpoint. Meaning, facilitators are not psychologists and the sessions are filled with other participants as well. Therefore, it’s important if someone shares something and begins to cry or show strong emotions to thank them and ask the group if they have any other ideas or thoughts on the subject. Although it might be difficult not to nurture, or focus more on the individual, this approach protects the person by allowing them to feel how they want and at the same time allows them to be part of a group and accepted.
You will notice that other participants might try to give advice or ask follow-up questions. This is a good time as a facilitator to ask and invite everyone to speak from their own personal experiences as opposed to focusing on the person who was emotional.
Q5: What if someone is extremely angry?
Once again, emotions are part of all of us. As long as there is no physical danger to anyone in the group, thank that person for sharing, let them know that the subject is important to many people and that’s why it’s even more important that we have a discussion about it.
Then, open the floor for other participants to give their opinion. If aggression and anger are starting to rise to a dangerous level, ask a question that pulls people into the logical side of their brain. Asking about a definition of a word that isn’t controversial is a good strategy when it comes to calming people down.
Did you know that worldwide, 68% of employees are disengaged and disconnected at work, costing companies $450-550 billion per year in lost productivity? Connected and engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave an organisation. Turnover costs can be 100-300% of an employee’s base salary. You can learn more data like this by exploring the results of Google’s Project Aristotle.
Coming soon – access to an online course to learn more deeply about Aristotle’s Cafe. Stay tuned.
You could integrate Aristotle’s Cafe into a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships and effectively navigate diverse topics of conversation.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Linking Feelings, Values & Thoughts
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
Recognising Strengths, Prejudices & Biases
Controlling One’s Emotions
Identifying & Managing Stress
Demonstrating Self-Discipline & Self-Motivation
Taking Other’s Perspectives
Demonstrating Empathy & Compassion
Understanding & Expressing Gratitude
Recognising Strengths In Others
Communicate & Listen Effectively
Build Positive Relationships
Demonstrate Cultural Competency
Resolving Conflict Constructively
Demonstrating Curiosity & Open-Mindedness
Making Reasoned Judgements
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
Many of the essential components of emotional literacy are reflected in the context of leading Aristotle’s Cafe conversations. Through your leadership, your group has the opportunity to trust one another, respond rather than react and self-regulate their emotions. Feeling secure and welcoming authentic interactions are critical too. These elements speak to the benefits of establishing agreed full valuebehavioural norms.
Consider a range of questions you could pose to your group at the conclusion of your session to explore these competencies, such as:
What’s the difference between responding and reacting to someone’s opinion?
In what ways did we create an environment in which people felt secure?
What signals did you observe that indicated that we were being authentic with one another?
Can you think of a time when active listening was demonstrated?
How might this process help our group build positive relationships?
How hard is it to accept differences?
Can you think of a time that your thoughts or feelings shifted during the discussion?
Share an example of when you took responsibility for something you shared?
Peer Leadership: Consider training selected students or leaders in your organisation to use this process to facilitate group discussions This type of training can develop a peer network of leaders who can be responsible for guiding respectful and cohesive conversations.
Organisations: Use this process within companies large and small as a starting point to larger discussions. Revealing questions or concerns held by different members of the team can help teams build the start of solutions together. See Leadership Tips tab for why this is important.
Outdoor Education: Using this process as a debrief after a long day is a wonderful way to get everyone’s input on their experience.
Take a look at Twenty One a wonderfully cooperative strategy to distil the collective wisdom of your group.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Limit each group size to no more than 9 people per lead facilitator. Use multiple breakout rooms if necessary.
Invite your group to switch to Gallery View to see the video thumbnails of all of their group members. For privacy purposes, instruct group participants to send an individual message to you via the chatroom to offer their questions. You can then read the questions, per normal.
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Useful Framing Ideas
We are taught from a young age that we will be rewarded or reprimanded for our opinions. But, when people are given a real opportunity to be their authentic selves wonderful things can happen, just as this next exercise will demonstrate…
It’s important to truly give everyone a chance to make mistakes, try on new hats, confront cognitive dissonance, and speak from experience. From classrooms to boardrooms these ideas and opinions will take on different shapes and forms, but the most important thing is to establish ground rules and allow the group to go through the process together. Are you willing to go on this journey together?…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after leading this powerful discussion model:
Do you feel that you know more about this topic than you did an hour ago?
Did anything shift in your perspective?
What did you learn about another person or their perspective?
What surprised you in our conversation today?
What do you feel you need to do next?
The inspiration for Aristotle’s Cafe was sourced from its founder, Hassan Ghiassi. If you want more, take a look at his Udemy course here.