A friend of mine, Hoyt Hilsman, runs a program called the Intentional Conversation, sponsored by Marymount College. I finally had a chance to participate in my first one of these events this week. The design of the program is deceptively simple. You enter a large space with a lot of other people, mingle a bit and get some coffee. Then you are assigned to a table, as if you are attending a wedding or a banquet. That becomes your table for the day, which enables everyone at the table to get to know one another fairly well. Everyone at all of the tables is given the same topic and some questions to stimulate discussion of the topic. So there are a lot of conversations going on at once, but you're not really conscious of what is happening at all the other tables, because you stay focused on the discussion at your own.
Other than allowing people of different backgrounds to connect and share experiences and ideas relevant to the topic, these conversations have no particular agenda or goal. At the end of the day, we have not solved any problems; we have no policy proposals to present; we have not resolved any debate topics. Instead, a leader at each table simply summarizes parts of the conversations that occurred at each table, enabling everyone to see some similarities in the discussions, and also how the different tables often veered in different directions.
I found the format fascinating, because it resembles discussion groups I have observed in ADR demonstrations. (See also my previous post on the 1000 tables event in Israel.) It's inherently a non-adversarial format, in contrast, for example, to a leader presenting a topic, and being challenged by the audience; or a debate, in which opposing factions square off as in a courtroom. And perhaps because there is nothing at stake in these conversations, other than participating in the exercise of listening to a variety of different perspectives on a topic, and contributing one's own perspective; what results is a remarkably civil discourse. Another feature that makes the format work is that we spent the first hour or so simply introducing ourselves to everyone else at the table, talking about our careers, our families and our interests in life. In that way, we established personal connections with others at the table that allowed us to respect one another's viewpoints. Also, because we were encouraged to bring our personal experiences into the discussion of the topic, rather than approaching it as an academic exercise, each person's point of view is more easily validated.
Think about the methods that activists typically employ to accomplish some policy objective or another: a march, a demonstration, a lawsuit, a boycott. All of these methods are inherently militaristic in nature. All of these methods, even when they mobilize and organize supporters, usually provoke, and may even stimulate opposition. Contrast those kinds of tactics with a process of engaging people in small groups to share their personal experiences, discover their common interests and appreciate their differences. Out of that kind of process comes genuine dialogue and greater understanding. That is the promise of small round tables.