Making round-table discussions work

10th March 2011

When I work with large groups I always design my meetings for a ‘cabaret’ layout. By this I mean, round tables with groups of upto 8. This layout allows a meeting design that gives depth of discussion at tables, and conclusion sharing in a whole group.

I have recently attended two, very different, business networking events that were run with this style of working. I got some interesting insights into what it can be like for participants to work this way.

The first event had 10 people on the table with a table host. The table host got us to introduce ourselves, and then introduced the topic for discussion, social networking. What I found interesting was that the group had very diverse experiences and, with no specific question to answer, the conversation really lacked focus. I was also the only female on this table and found it really hard to contribute. I am no shrinking violet, and I spend my life in male dominated business meetings, so this caught me by surprise.

In the second event, the table group was about 8. I got volunteered to be the table captain and there was a specific question to be answered, ‘if I had a magic wand, what would I wish for myself in the next 12 months?’, which everyone had been advised in advance. Interestingly in this group, the group facilitated itself, got equal contribution and all I did was make notes and report back. I also noticed that in this discussion there was no right / wrong thinking in the group, just exploration. Whereas in the first group, although it was positioned as a discussion, there was a lot more judgement of people’s contribution.

So… my conclusions…

  • Smaller is better. Even just going from 10 to 8 worked better, 5 seems to be perfect for deep discusssions.
  • The question is so important. Having the right question is essential to stimulate the discussions you want.
  • Small things can make a big difference. Even just knowing the question in advance can change the contribution you get.