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.
- understand the participants
- understand and prepare the topic under discussion
- remember: this is not your platform
- encourage quieter people
- nudge the discussion to ensure all points are covered
The rest of this post goes into more detail on these points.
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.