Tips for facilitating round-table discussions

Round-table discussions can be a really useful way to discover and share direct experience with peers and colleagues. A good round-table discussion is quietly facilitated by someone who knows the subject matter enough to include interesting questions and can ensure that everyone has a voice.

Here is what I have learnt from facilitating round-table discussions and watching others, too.

  1. understand the participants
  2. understand and prepare the topic under discussion
  3. remember: this is not your platform
  4. encourage quieter people
  5. nudge the discussion to ensure all points are covered

The rest of this post goes into more detail on these points.

table with cakes

I have been facilitating round-table discussions regularly for the past few years, most recently at a meeting of business leaders and execs in Manchester, UK. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on what’s needed from a round-table facilitator.

1 – understand the participants

Take time beforehand to understand the kinds of participants around the table. What are they expecting from the discussion? What are their backgrounds?

At the start of the round-table, write down people’s names (at least their first name) because you will need these later when you ask the quieter people to speak. Ask everyone to introduce themselves clearly to the whole group.

2 – understand and prepare the topic under discussion

You should be comfortable discussing the topic for the table. You don’t need to know everything about it, but you do need to know enough to be able to comment and steer the discussion and to bring the discussion back on topic if it has veered too far away. If necessary do some reading beforehand to refresh your memory so you can recognise trends or keywords during the discussion.

Before the discussion (or at the start) write down a list of specific questions that you think the discussion should cover, and share these with the participants: “Today, I suggest that we try to answer these questions… (X, Y, Z). Does anyone have any other questions for us to include? Should we look at some other aspect?” This frames the debate in a way that includes people

Be ready to voice your opinions in order to spark discussion. If the discussion is a bit pale, inject some controversy in the form of a question to see if people respond!

3 – remember: this is not your platform

As a facilitator, your job is to encourage high-quality, high-value conversations around the table. Do not use your position as a platform to talk about your own views. You can voice some views to help spark discussion and to shift the focus of the debate, but make sure that people feel that the discussion is for and by them.

4 – encourage quieter people

Be especially conscious of the quieter people around the table. If after a while someone has not yet spoken, ask them directly by name “…and what do you think, Sam?” (for example). Often, the quieter people have been listening carefully and so have synthesised an interesting viewpoint.

Be ready to gently cut short the more chatty people in order to give space for others: “… that’s a good point, Vijay; what do other people think?”.

5 – nudge the discussion to ensure all key points are covered

Perhaps the most tricky part of facilitating a round-table discussion is making sure that all the questions mentioned at the start of the discussion have been answered. This effectively is about making sure the discussion has “delivered” on what was promised at the beginning. The pace of the discussion also needs to be right: no-one should be bored by the slowness or overwhelmed by the speed.

To do this, you need to be checking the discussion against your written list of questions and asking yourself some questions:

  • Have we had enough discussion on the current question?
  • Do participants seem engaged or bored?
  • How can we shift the debate to this next question?
  • What “bridging” question can I ask to link to the next theme?

To answer these questions, you need a decent knowledge of the discussion topic (see point 2 above). Don’t be afraid to interject occasionally to move on the debate: “in the interests of time, I think we should move on to this related question…” or “Let’s bring things back to the main topic for a moment…”.

Finally, ensure you finish the discussion on time: leave 2 or 3 minutes for some concluding remarks that summarise some of the points made during the round-table discussion.

4 thoughts on “Tips for facilitating round-table discussions

  1. This is incredibly useful, and a format that I think businesses should use internally at all levels to surface things that have potentially been flying under the radar. I hope to use to try to replicate those ad-hoc end of day discussions between passing colleagues that end up being 30 minute chats about “the state of play” of one thing or another, because often there are so many good ideas and observations in these conversations I wish I could bottle them to open and analyse again later. In that case though I think limiting the number of participants to 3 or 4 really helps as in my opinion the most valuable chat is when the conversation flows naturally from one person to another, speeds up as people get passionate about a certain topic and slows down when they get thoughtful about it, and this is harder to achieve with more people.

    Another thought is the scope of knowledge of the participants. Although there can be value in having people in the discussion with mutually exclusive knowledge, in my opinion some of the most valuable conversation happens between people who have some overlapping scope of knowledge, but also not people with identical scope of knowledge. So for example a conversation between mid-senior people who all come from the same department but are each on a different team with quite a different mandate.

    Also, depending on the outcomes you need, keeping the agenda loose can have a really interesting affect in allowing the conversation to go somewhere you didn’t expect and surface ideas and valuable observations you didn’t know were there.

    I’d be interested to know how many people you would suggest having at your table? Maximum and minimum?

    1. Thanks, Jamie. Going by Dunbar’s numbers, I’d say that around 15 is a sensible maximum for the number of participants in a round-table discussion. Any more than that and it becomes difficult to ensure everyone has a say.

      I love the idea of applying round-table discussions to internal situations within an organisation. I have not see that in action but I can image that – done well – it could be a really powerful approach, as you say.

  2. Great write up from some of your experiences Matthew. These reflect some of the internal facilitation I’ve seen recently, one angle I’d be interested in hearing about is any non-verbal interruption techniques you may have employed and their effectiveness?

    1. Hi Rob. For round-table discussions, with people looking in many directions, auditory cues for interruption are often best. You could pre-agree a time limit on each contribution, and then tap the table after that limit. I think that raising your hand to indicate a question should always be part of the round-table etiquette. The chair should be looking for opportunities to bring in other people.

      In other contexts, it can be effective to use the Pomodoro technique (or variations) – timed periods of focus ending in an alarm or bell. You could also try/introduce some signals like hand-raising or dimming lights: – these need introducing to the group first, though, so less suitable for round-table discussions 🙂

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