This blog is a joy to write. All of us have special people in our lives who have contributed to our personal development. In a very concrete way they have had a measurable influence in shaping who we are. For me, one such person is David Isaacs, one of the originators of the World Café.
I first met David at a Society of Organizational Learning (SOL) conference being held in Boston (Massachusetts). It was a mistake (or perhaps better said serendipity) that I met David at all. I had signed up and paid for a pre–conference workshop. There were several workshops being offered; it had been hard to choose. I arrived at my chosen workshop. However, I took a moment to read the description of a workshop which was being held in the adjacent room. This workshop seemed a lot more attractive to me. I made the spontaneous decision to attend it instead. And there, was David. I still don’t know what moved me to make that last minute switch, but in retrospect it was one of those decisions that changed my life. There were about 12 participants. David led us in a discussion about the importance of conversation in organizations, while Ulric Rudebeck from Sweden (someone else who would also play a special role in my life later on) recorded our conversation on the wall – my first experience of graphic recording.
I still remember with great fondness the remarkable emotional sensitivity with which David led the conversation. He seemed to visibly empathize with the feelings of each participant as they spoke. This remarkable ability attracted me like a magnet and made the conversation seem that much more important for me. In subsequent years I continued to meet David at SOL conferences. We always seemed to have memorable conversations. At one particular conference in Helsinki (Finland), we took a boat trip to reach our dinner location. That year we had a particularly interesting “boat ride” conversation on the topic of sustainability.
Another one of David’s special talents is connecting people. He has been directly responsible for connecting me with several people in my own home town! At SOL conferences, he always inquired whether you knew someone – and if you didn’t (and the person was at the conference) – he would go out of his way to make sure that you made the personal connection. It was both enriching, fun and fruitful to be around him.
It was around this time that I was beginning to get interested in large group facilitation. I had facilitated a Future Search conference and had begun to experiment with World Cafés. Then came a special visit with David at Eibsee.
David was asked to facilitate a conversation in Prague in the fall of 2004. He had a few free days and wrote to me as well as to others he knew in Munich. He inquired whether I had the time and inclination to spend some time with him the weekend after his Prague commitment. (He later told me that I was the only one who had responded to his e-mail.) I enthusiastically told him that it would be a pleasure to have the opportunity to show him around Munich.
When people come to visit us in Munich, I don’t feel like a visit is complete without a trip into the Bavarian countryside. On Friday and Saturday my wife Pat and I walked with David all around Munich, sharing both the stories and knowledge about the city which we had accumulated from over 15 years of living here. On Sunday, we headed for the mountains. After some deliberation we decided to go to Eibsee, a lake at the foot of Germany’s highest mountain – the Zugspitze. There is a footpath which winds itself around the lake. The walk takes about 3 hours. Throughout the walk there are exquisite vistas of mountain tops framed by the pristine alpine water of the lake and the deep green shades of the surrounding trees. On a normal day, this is a truly beautiful walk. However on that particular October day, it was one of the most spectacular autumn days which I have ever experienced. It is hard to find words to truly express the quality of the light that day. Both David and I had brought our cameras. Between us, we must have taken over 100 photographs. One breathtaking view was followed by another view which was even more breathtaking. Professional photographers were out in force that day and taking advantage of the unprecedented light conditions.
The tenor of the conversation as we walked around the lake could not help but be influenced by the sensory shower of stimulation which we were experiencing. The conversation was deep, philosophical and from the heart. All three of us somehow knew that this walk was a transformative experience. During the walk David said that he had not known why he had wanted to come to Munich, but that now he knew. My own personal experience was nothing short of an epiphany. I somehow knew deep inside that my life would never be the same again.
The outdoors became an important cornerstone of our relationship. When I visited David for the Stewardship Meeting held in northern California a year later, I joined a walk which he led to a favorite spot – a place of stillness and quiet beauty.
On the 20th anniversary of the World Café, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the special moments which I spent with David. I would like to thank him for the many gifts which he brought into my life. But more than anything, I would like to thank him for who he is. His optimistic disposition, his love of life and people, his ability to see something special in the smallest things, his unconditional open heartedness have forever left an impression on me. It is a gift I will cherish the rest of my life.