Roundtables are a popular form of discussion format because they’re designed to be participatory and inclusive. Everyone at the table gets a chance to have their say and to learn from their peers. They’re interesting too because each participant comes from a place of different experiences and opinions. And they’re moderated, so they don’t usually go wildly off track or turn into a fighting match.
It’s really just civilized conversation—with a purpose.
What is a roundtable discussion and why are they used?
A roundtable discussion is a guided conversation, usually to explore a specific topic and sometimes come up with recommendations. Participants often have some expertise on the subject matter and each person at the table should participate in the discussion equally. While the shape of the table itself lends to this equal footing, the facilitator or moderator is ultimately responsible to ensure that everyone gets their chance to speak.
What is the goal of roundtable discussions?
The goal of the discussion can be anything from a debate-like exploration of a topic, with participants holding opposing views, to a solutions-based discussion with ideas to solve problems proposed by each subject expert. Or, the goal might simply be to discuss the future of an industry or a social justice issue like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Most roundtables have an audience who are there to learn. That gives the moderator another goal, which is to educate. Depending on the topic, a good discussion should give the listeners insights, and possibly solutions they can implement immediately in their personal lives or at work.
The general structure of a roundtable discussion
Most roundtables have between two and eight people, and tend to run no more than one hour. There are reasons for limiting the number of participants: with too many, the discussion is harder to control, with the risk of side conversations and people not getting the chance to speak. With too few people, you limit the variety of opinions and ideas being introduced, which in turn limits the value of the experience.
Roundtables can be held in person or virtually. In both cases, the facilitator briefly introduces themselves, their role, and the discussion topic and objectives. Next are participant introductions. These are often done by each participant. In a few sentences, they state their name, role, or expertise, and how they came to be interested in the topic being discussed.
The introduction and wrap-up, in which participants give their final thoughts or a main takeaway, take about 10 minutes each. That leaves 40 minutes for the discussion. To start, the moderator will ask an opening question to the person whose introduction makes that question a good fit.
Throughout the conversation, the moderator needs to manage the time carefully, so that the discussion doesn’t run long or go short. This means they should have additional questions at hand, in case there’s a lull. It also means ensuring that each person at the table is given equal time.
Who should you include at your roundtable?
Who you invited as your roundtable participants depends very much on the topic you’re discussing and what you’re trying to accomplish. In business, they might be industry leaders or experts in their field, while in community-based conversations, you may have local politicians and members of the public.
Ultimately you want to invite people who can contribute productively. They should have a deep interest in the subject and be aligned to your topic either by personal or professional experience.
There’s a DEI roundtable, for instance, that meets on a regular basis. Hosted by financial services training company BAI, it is exclusively for “chief Diversity Officers and other senior diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) leaders (SVP+) from financial services organizations with asset sizes of at least $10 billion.” Keeping participants exclusive, according to BAI, helps “ensure consistent, high-quality discussion and peer networking.”
For a Black History Month roundtable discussion in 2018 at the University of Oregon, the participants were five Black students and a graduate acting as moderator. The question they explored was: Why it’s so important to know Black history? They were the right participants because they each have a unique lived experience and perspective that non-Black people don’t have. They talked about Black history not being taught in school and being the only Black person in a 400-person lecture class, and that it’s okay to be different and to not be like the other people you’re seeing.
Questions you should ask at a roundtable discussion
The questions you ask as moderator should be open-ended. Some examples for a DEI-based roundtable might include:
Why is DEI important to you personally?
How did you get involved?
What advancements have you seen at your place of work?
What is something actionable people can do today to make their workplace more inclusive?
When you’re winding up the discussion, end by asking participants questions that can be answered quickly. For instance, ask each person for their number one tip or takeaway.
Read more: The Importance of Building Trust at Work
Common roundtable mishaps
First-time moderators often have slight problems with the timing of roundtable discussions or letting one participant take over the conversation. Those issues are usually a matter of inexperience and seem to resolve themselves as the moderator gains practice and confidence at hosting roundtable discussions.
More serious mishaps can occur if your topic is too broad. You’ll actually have trouble controlling the conversation, which could go off into so many directions that there’s no overall cohesion. To keep that from happening, maintain a narrow focus from the outset, and use your comments, redirections, and follow-up questions to keep the discussion on point.
Similarly, if you forgot to send your agenda and questions to the participants before the event, they won’t be prepared to discuss the topic as deeply as they might otherwise. No matter their expertise, they need time to consider your questions and their possible answers before the event.
How do you conduct a successful roundtable discussion centered around DEI?
The right participants are the most important factor to success when conducting any roundtable, regardless of the topic. However, those people become crucial when your roundtable discussion is centered around DEI.
In a virtual roundtable called Multiple Lenses of DEI, for example, the participants are Black women. Their personal experiences added a level of depth to the discussion that would be missing if the participants were white men. When responding to the first question: “What got you into the DEI space?,” participant Keni Dominguez, now a workplace strategist and career coach for Black and WOC introverts, said that as one of the only Black women working in tech, she became invested in wanting to see more people come through the door who looked like her.
Participants in DEI-related discussions should reflect the people most affected by structural racism in society and at the workplace. Only then can the conversations be all-encompassing and meaningful.