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Global Flipchart #19



September 2020

Designing a High Impact World Café Using the Maieutic Approach

Andrea Panzavolta

World Café is a very well-known informal method that helps engage participants. It also enhances spontaneous conversations. World Café in its purest form, has 3 questions tailored for a specific group’s outcome. The questions chosen are crucial for the success of a World Cafe. These will determine the quality of the participant’s exploration of a subject.

Good question design also encourages a logical progression of discoveries through dialogue.

It sounds simple but is not so easy. And many World Cafe's fall foul of average question design. We should always strive for questions that:

  • Are simple and clear
  • Cause reflections
  • Generate energy
  • Focus on the investigation or outcome at hand
  • Raises hypotheses of which we were not aware and opens up new possibilities

What is the Maieutic and how can it help?

La maieutica ("art of the midwife") is the art of asking questions instead of giving answers. It was developed by Socrates as a way of "giving birth" to the truth. When we ask maieutic questions, according to Socrates, we elicit new ideas from another. It helps those who ask for help; to improve themselves; to understand their limits/strengths; and define their goals. In the maieutic approach objective reality does not exist.

There is only a personal and subjective interpretation of reality. Reality is often difficult to change, but our interpretation of it is modifiable. So results are ephemeral, because the solutions are evolving.

The path is the most important thing to follow, it is what truly remains for each participant.

The maieutic question is an extraordinary work tool. It's used in the management of conflicting groups by helping relationships. The question's usefulness is due to the avoidance of relationships. These conversations tend to focus on : judgment - interpretations – advice. 

Below are some questions useful in organising a World Café or training session with a group. I recommend preparing three questions. Each for a specific advanced stage that coincides with a session of work.

1st stage Listening, understanding and information questions. For example: When did it happen, who was there, how did it happen?

2nd stage Restructuring applications, to look at the problems/issues from the outside. For example: What advantages are there in being in this situation? What’s the needs of the other actors involved in the issue?

3rd stage Sustainability questions, towards sustainable and adequate outcomes. For example: What would you be willing to do to change? What resources do we have?

It’s possible you need to manage a specific workshop to face every stage. So for example three “Listening, understanding and information” questions to face the issue. And so on for the other two stages.

Traps in designing World Cafe Questions

There are some important principles that Socrates developed to ensure questions gave birth to truth. At the highest level, the question must not be a control/command question, that is they should NOT be:

Tendentious, i.e. already contains part of the answer. For example: Does this bother you?

Judging, i.e. expresses a judgment to the person. For example: Behaving in this way is not appropriate, how would you have done it?

Illegitimate i.e. to check that the other knows what the interlocutor already knows. For example: Do you know that in doing so you hurt him?

Invasive and inquisitive i.e. embarrasses and activates resistance. It is not respectful of the person's emotions and feelings. It contains a reproach even if implicit: For example: why did you attack him?

Manipulative (like tendentious, but more seductive). For example: This fact bothers you ... could you say something to him?

The maieutic question must stimulate interest, curiosity and help generate connections.

....And How It Could Be Done

Here below a practical example that use maieutic questions. These questions could be useful, used on your own or in a group, to understand how to manage a World Café.

  1. What characteristics do we recognize, using the World Café method? (1st stage, understanding)
  2. What do we need and what can we do immediately to organize the best world cafè workshop? (2nd stage restructuring)
  3. What the best questions can we write together? (3rd stage towards sustainable and adequate questions)


A final recommendation: the midwife approach thrives on active listening. So repeating back understanding and “clarifying suggestions” are very important. This gives back the meaning brought by participants with different, more "easy and clear" words.

Source about maieutic questions and maieutic conversation: Daniele Novara CPP,

Article inspired by Trevor Durnford