Cafe Psychologique

cafeterasseCafé Psychologique was founded in December 2010 by Chris Powell, a group analyst and co-founder of Spark. I interviewed Chris briefly for a Culture Vulture piece on Leeds’ public debate scene last year. Eighteen months on from the cafés founding, I thought I’d catch up with him again to find out more about how it works, what inspired it, and plans to take the Café Psychologique idea to other cities.

1. Chris, the Café is described as ‘a space where people can talk about life over a drink from a psychological perspective’: how is it going, and is it working out as you’d imagined?

It’s working really well – perhaps better than I expected. I was unsure how people would respond to a format based much more on conversation and the expertise contained in the group, rather than provided by a nominated expert, but people seem to like it. There are a good group of people who attend regularly, as well as occasional visitors and new faces every time. The range of topics we are looking at is wider than I expected too.

2. Why do you think it’s been so successful?

People do like to talk, and are often surprised and stimulated by what other people have to say. The format makes it clear that everyone has something to contribute and even if people don’t speak I think that makes for a welcoming environment. I also think many people are intrigued by psychology and psychological ways of thinking so this is a good chance to pursue that. Lastly, the methodology the café uses is based on Group Analysis, a way of working with people that has been well tested all over the world over the last sixty years.

3. What inspired you to start the Café?

Originally I heard of a French psychologist doing some sort of therapy in a café but I have never managed to track her down since it seems to have only happened on one or two occasions. I spend much of my life in psychotherapy consulting rooms, working with people on their difficulties in groups, but I’m aware this way of talking and thinking is really helpful for lots of other purposes other than just psychotherapy. So I was keen to get this way of working out of a clinical setting and make it more accessible. I also believe passionately in the ability of people to think things out together, solve problems together, provide something for each other in groups that they don’t have as individuals. This is a way of demonstrating and experiencing that.

4. Can you tell people how a Café Psychologique works?

I host the evening and give a brief welcome. Then someone with some expertise in the field being looked at that evening introduces the theme. It’s usually a psychological professional of some kind – psychologist, psychotherapist, psychiatrist – but we’ve also had a journalist, sociologist and quantity surveyor. They usually speak for no more than 90 seconds then it’s over to the group to talk about the theme. People are sat around small tables arranged in a rough circle and they speak to the whole group at once. We talk for about 45 minutes, have a break and then after another brief introduction from the guest expert talk for another 45 minutes. During this I will try and keep the discussion going and ensure as many people as possible join in. The guest expert will chip in but only as a member of the group; they don’t take up much of the air time.

5. You’re the only discussion group I know that has a list of rules that you’d like the audience to follow. Why do you feel this is necessary? And doesn’t it threaten the quality of debate if ‘all points of view’ are to be treated as valid, especially aligned with Rule 1, that ‘everyone talks’? In other words, may it not encourage people to waffle on subjectively and unchallenged?

These two questions are linked. This café is based on the notion of ‘free floating discussion’ from Group Analysis. This suggests that if the setting is right and people are encouraged to just say what comes to mind you will discover things that would have remained hidden if you are working some pre-set agenda. So, the rules are there to try and make sure it doesn’t just become a Q & A session with a guest expert, and to encourage everyone to participate. The group usually won’t let someone just carry on speaking for too long – I’ll interrupt eventually if no one else does. People do then challenge what’s been said. What is not challenged is everyone’s right to contribute in this setting, whatever their apparent level of expertise and knowledge. I won’t divert into a discussion about objective truth, but one aim of the café is to help people think about what issues mean to them in their lives, their work, their homes. From that point of view everyone is an expert in what something means to them and having the chance to say that often produces surprising ideas and thoughts for others.

6. You’re also looking for venues throughout the UK to set up other Cafes. How’s the search going?

I’m in the process of setting up a café in Manchester and talking to people in a couple of other places including London and Oxford. Interestingly it seems there are problems elsewhere that seem easier to solve in Leeds, such as suitable venues, and people interested in supporting the idea. Group Analysts believe you have to build a culture to enable groups to meet and work and talk as they should. You see this when you try to set up a therapy group in a clinical service where they haven’t had groups before – it’s much harder. I guess Leeds has a culture of talking and debate that has meant it’s been possible for Café Psychologique to become established fairly quickly and easily. I’m hopeful we can spread the word though…

Café Psychologique takes place the fourth Tuesday every month in Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton. The next Café is on 26th June – ‘Bullying and the Media’ with Oliver Cross, followed on 24th July – ‘Mindfulness’ with Kamila Hortynska.

For more information visit their website:

Paul Thomas is an organiser of The Leeds Salon, which will be looking at ‘Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition’ at the Carriageworks (Room 2), Monday 16 July.