The birth of Listening Cafés

This month we’re delighted to feature a story from the UK. Read along as host-facilitator Sofia Bustamante shares how she used circle conversation as a compassionate, community-making response to the Brexit vote. A bold and simple social action becomes a movement. An iteration of The Circle Way. 

The Birth of Listening Cafés

When the fifth person almost demanded that I come up with a response, I sat back and listened. It was the week after the Brexit vote in the UK and the public were in shock. Social anxiety had visibly increased, and people were feeling it in all kinds of unexpected places. Fissures in family relationship, communities, within and between institutions were markedly noticeable. People normally calm and not so concerned about these matters went out of their way to implore me to do something. It gave me a sense of honour with overtones of overwhelm. I recognised that familiar sense when a charge comes over your whole body, you know that something has changed, and you are going to respond. 

I sat back and thought, “What is needed here? What is one thing that could be done, to make a difference?” I realized I felt most sad about the breakdown of relationships becoming more prevalent. The quality of national debate had, I thought, contributed to depressing a nation and reducing its belief in conversation and in the perspective of an “Other.” Fear and suspicion to an almost morbid extent had taken the place of openness, curiosity and trust.

This was most definitely an historic moment. It was absolutely not a moment in which I had time or resources to commit to something. Yet I did. I put together the most basic conversational experience I could imagine which would enable people to:

  • have an actual experience of good conversation in a small group,
  • gain trust in being heard, and in the process of listening,
  • be so simple that people could repeat it at home,
  • offer a tool as a “take away” to help people repeat it at home.

I hoped such an experience would help each of us step out of the trap of virtual communications where the lack of social cues and intense social upheavals are a perfect storm for misunderstanding and polarisation.

Inspired by Dialogue for Democracy circles and my Art of Hosting background which included training in circle conversation, this simple recipe emerged and evolved:

  1. A Listening Circle (or several which forms a Listening Café) of 4 people
  2. 3 people listen
  3. 1 person talks
  4. Each person takes turns to speak and listen
  5. A few moments of silence after each person speaks
  6. Changing tables after a full round of conversation
  7. At the centre of each circle, a coaster printed with guidelines for good listening

Getting the Word Out

In addition to “word of mouth,” I put the idea out as a suggestion to Facebook and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Interest and “how to” requests have been far reaching, coming from within the UK and internationally. With help, I implemented a system of peer support “call ins” to help others learn how to host Listening circles and cafes.

The “original” Listening Cafe has been a regular monthly feature in the Ritzy Arthouse Cinema Cafe in Brixton. UK for several months.  Consistently, participant feedback includes an experience of high quality listening, soulful connections nurtured and a newfound respect for the potency of the humble act of listening. A rich community of practice has now emerged called The Listening Movement (as the BBC has The Listening Project!) with people posting their own events and sharing inspirations around listening.

Ripples Outward

We have also supported other movements across the country:

  • Listening Circles were incorporated into the Trump/Brexit dialogue process at St. Ethelurga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace;
  • We hosted a Listening Cafe at the museum of Happiness Storytelling Festival;
  • At the Urban Confessional Free Listening Events, the Listening Circle process supported brave wonderful people as they offered individual listening in public spaces across London.
  • In response to Trump’s election as US president, we experimented by adding principles from Empathy Circles (developed by Edwin Rutsch) to the base Listening Circle process. The Tea and Empathy Cafe emerged.

Listening Circles as a Relevant Response

After hosting Listening Circles and Cafes, and peer support calls for several months, I’ve taken time to pause and notice:

  • My original response was confirmed: we need to create safe spaces where people can, in a very simple way, practice the skill of listening.
  • Listening Circles create a non-judgmental space where people can be witnessed as they are.
  • Within Listening Circles, spontaneous community forms and dissolves. However, once those initial connections are made, with regular attendance a continuity of belonging develops for those who want it.
  • While themes emerge each month, consistently spoken is the loneliness that gnaws quietly in certain moments in peoples’ lives. Paradoxically, being able to express this loneliness to others may reduce it.
  • Another theme is the joy people find in simple things. These generative experiences of connecting deeply with others counter the fractious society in which we live and serve as a reminder of what is important to us all, beyond all the noise.
  • Listening is an act that can heal. It is a simple practice and a high level art form. It is an act of kindness which has the potential to transform everything.

Listening Circles as Practice

I see the Listening Circle as a “practice space” in which we learn together how to fine-tune our listening skills. Too, as we practice in th Listening Circle we can then each take the practice out into our contexts and spaces, thereby spreading the skills for meaningful conversation.

Listening alone is not solely what is needed to address society's challenges. Just as there are moments when good listening is critical, there will be moments when other dynamics and activities are required. But listening is such an important “meta skill” for navigating uncertain times, I believe it is necessary to learn and practice intentionally, in the safe spaces created by Listening Circles.

Listening well does not imply agreeing with. Sensing where another person is, keeps us better informed to notice when situations change rapidly, when different responses and actions need to be taken. Reality consists of us and our views AND other people and their views. Getting a deeper understanding of each others’ views and what has created these views, helps us all stay in touch with reality. It creates connection which I believe it will ultimately keep us all safer.

Further, Listening Circles are not about trying to persuade people to change their views. Rather, we are invited into a conversational experience which cultivates a heightened ability to listen well to others’ views, and to share our own views, safely, respectfully, thereby growing in deeper understanding of self and others.

You are welcome to join the public Listening Movement at

Let’s increase our faith in humanity,

one good conversation at a time.


Listening Circle Coaster

Listening Circle Guidelines


Sofia Bustamante, FRSA founded the Listening Movement in response to the Brexit Vote in the UK as a means of bridging divides. As an Art of Hosting teacher-practitioner, conflict resolution specialist, coach and therapist, Sofia has designed a career grounded in her vision of healthy collaboration and community. She has been recognized as a London Leader by the Mayor’s Office for her innovative approach to creating a sustainable London economy. Currently she is training as a teacher of Aikido to support her personal practice, and to help women step into leadership within their communities.