Managing a group like Intellectual Conversation Group with well over 700 members depends heavily on the quality and dedication of its volunteers, specifically Table Hosts. Several of our more successful Table Hosts have contributed their thoughts to this document entitled, “Table Host Guidelines.”
The challenge for every Table Host is to create a pleasant experience for each of our members attending a discussion group, and more specifically, those members sitting at their table. Our rules are to be inclusive with discussion never leading to polarity or leading to the discomfort of any other member sitting on the table. We feel members come to the table as friends and need to leave as friends. The conversation should never be a debate and there should never be winners and losers. Ideally, attendees will all have a pleasant experience and learn something new during the process.
Our guidelines will help each Table Host meet those objectives. To put it in the words of one of our hosts, she believes you should think of table hosting as if you were hosting an event at your home. “You want everyone to have a good time and you want to keep an eye on how it’s all going.”
1) Less is more. The purpose of the 2-minute rule is to give everyone sitting at your table an opportunity to answer the question before open discussion. Two minutes and that’s it. Tell the group each time, just before you begin, that you will be strict about the time and then make sure that you are. Some people you will actually have to interrupt, but it’s your job. Use a bell or the timer on your phone, or just hold up your hand, smile and say “Sorry, we have to move on.” It may feel uncomfortable at first, but you will get used to it. If you say “only 2 minutes” or “up to 2 minutes” just before you begin the group, no one should feel that it is personal.
2) The “Open Discussion” (after each person has spoken for 2 mins.) should be just that; no rules, but the host has to moderate to make sure that no one person or two people dominate. This is probably the most challenging time for the host. If you’re lucky, just like at a party, one person will make a comment and then others join in and there is a natural give and take. In that case the host doesn’t have to do anything. But sometimes one person will try to make another long-winded statement or announce they have “four points to make” and, as host, you have to interrupt and say, for instance, “Just pick one point and let us all discuss it.” Additionally, as host you may want to impose a one or two minute rule during open discussion, especially if a few members begin to become long-winded.
Some people at the table prefer to raise their hand to speak. Make sure you notice those people and acknowledge them so they can have a chance. Also, if you feel comfortable with this, you can even ask someone, for instance, “You’re smiling, did you want to say something?”
As host, you should always be mindful of all the people at your table, look around frequently, try to engage as many people as you can, and if you see people are drifting off, looking at their watches, etc., it’s time to “Move on.” Moving on should not be by consensus, it should be your decision as Table Host. Try to avoid asking if there are any other comments, just move on. One thing that often happens is that only two or three people are engaged in some discussion, and the rest are drifting off. (Make sure you aren’t one of the only two people speaking!) Again, watch for this and then it’s time to just announce, with confidence and a smile, “Well, people, time to move on.”
3) Light & heavy questions. As host, if you feel that, for instance, the group has just discussed a “heavy” question, you might suggest, before the next person picks, “Let’s try something light.” Also, if a very similar question to one that was already discussed comes up, as host you can say, “I think we should skip this one.” Also, if someone drifts into “story-telling”, remind him or her “let’s stay on topic.”
4) Inappropriate answers. If someone answers in an inappropriate way- drifting into inflammatory comments about anything (political, racial, religious, ethnic) – these are the kind of comments that lead to inflamed feelings and it’s not what we are about. Stop them; don’t let them continue on just because everyone at the table is too polite to say anything. You can say, for instance, “Not for this group, please.” That should signal the person that he or she has crossed a line, without accusing the person of anything. Most people who engage in rhetoric know they are doing it and will get the hint. If you get challenged about this, you can always say, “Remember, we want to leave as friends.”
5) Preloading Questions. To avoid the possibility of running out of questions, some Table Hosts resorted to “stuffing the bags” with their own questions, or questions from another hosting. This is not good and we highly discourage it. Every member that submits one or two questions really wants those questions asked sometime during the Meetup session. Preloading questions will often mean that all questions are not asked and at least one or two members will be disappointed. As a matter of fact, many of our better hosts will often not add any of their own questions and manage their hosting to questions added by only the table.
What if you run out of questions? Best suggestion is to encourage all table participants to write at least one question. Second best is to keep a few questions in reserve. This is where you as Table Host can keep a few questions in reserve. These can be questions you wrote or unanswered questions from a prior Meetup. Leave these questions in a separate bag and only use if you run out of questions.
6) Members Passing when it is their turn to answer should be discouraged. The general rule is that any member can pass on answering a question once in a general discussion and never in a special discussion. If a member passes more frequently, as Table Host remind them that passing is generally not permitted. If it becomes chronic, you may request that member to leave the table. We are a conversation or discussion group which means that the objective for each table is 100% involvement. The act of “passing” can present an attitude of judgement by the member passing. Either they think they are “too good to answer,” or they don’t have an opinion. If, on the other hand, the question asked is stupid or not appropriate for an intellectual conversation group of people, then as Table Host you have the right to withdraw the question.
7) When should members leave the table. Ask that people not get up and leave (for coffee, bathroom, etc.) while someone is speaking his or her 2 mins. Ask them to do so in between questions or in open discussion.
8) Texting & Cell Phones. As a Table Host it is perfectly okay to ask any participant to leave the table if they need to talk on their cell phone, review and/or respond to text messages, or continuously access a cell phone or iPad or similar.
9) Meetup Duration. Ask people to let you know before the group begins if they will have to leave early so you can announce it. That way when the person gets up to leave it doesn’t look as if he or she got bored or whatever. It also makes a subtle point to the rest that they shouldn’t just get up and leave in the middle of the group. Also, ask that people particularly not leave just before the end of the two hours, but to wait for the end. But, if they have to leave for some unexpected reason, they should go in between questions or in open discussion and not when someone is speaking his or her 2 mins.
FOUR THINGS TO SAY EACH TIME TO YOUR GROUP
“AS HOST, MY JOB IS TO KEEP THINGS MOVING”
1. 2 MINS/I WILL BE STRICT/ITS NOT PERSONAL
2. OPEN DISCUSSION -KEEP IT SHORT/LET OTHERS SPEAK
3. NO CROSS-TALKING
4. GET UP ONLY WHEN QUESTION ENDS OR PERSON STOPS SPEAKING
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