Roundtable Discussion

Objective: "Roundtable discussions are small group discussions where everybody has an equal right to participate. This method can in reality encompass a number of different formats; roundtables are a form of academic discussion, used as a technique for community and public engagement, and may also be used by organisations and businesses...The general purpose of a roundtable is to hold a close discussion and exploration of a specific topic. A roundtable, holding all participants on equal footing, aims to confront issues rather than people" (www.participedia.net).

How it Works: "...A topic for a roundtable has usually been identified in advance. Selecting the topic and scope can be tricky as it must be clearly defined, yet allow the opportunity for open and natural discussion – otherwise the conversation can dry up during the roundtable. Some guidelines suggest drawing up an agenda beforehand, splitting the topic into smaller areas for a more structured discussion, or focusing on specific goals as with the San Francisco Urban-Rural Roundtable.

Roundtables will generally make use of a facilitator or chair for the discussion, but this person should not lead or direct the discussion. The facilitator’s role is to try and ensure that everyone is included equally in the discussion and to keep the discussion on track, through reminding the group of the time or to gently steer conversation if it goes too far off track. Again, this will depend on the scope and aims of each roundtable.

The time allotted for a roundtable discussion can also impact how exactly the discussion evolves. Given a limited time, participants may choose to work towards a specific goal or outcome, or instead spend the discussion on broader reflections without the impetus to achieve a specific output. However, this will also depend on the scope of the topic and the aim of the organisers. It is essential that the facilitator is mindful of time to avoid participants’ frustration if the discussion is cut short – especially if it is a one-off meeting.

Consultancy firm Cocoate identifies some specific rules and guidelines for a roundtable discussion, such as no mobile phones or toilet breaks, which may be too restrictive or unsuitable for some purposes. General guidelines that could be more widely applicable may include:

  • Listening to others; no interruptions when people are speaking
  • No other discussions whilst someone is talking
  • Everyone to participate actively
  • No domination
  • Differences in opinion are not expressed or taken personally
  • Maintain a civil tone and atmosphere

Note that the above guidelines can also be established by the group themselves at the outset, by agreeing on some ground rules that the discussion will abide by" (www.participedia.net).

Participation level Target groups Number of participants Duration/Timeline Implementation Frequency Budget
Consultation Any Up to 30 1/2 day Live event Any Low
Organizational requirements:
  • Protocol/Documentation
  • Moderator/Facilitator
  • Education about the topic before the actual activity taking place
  • Education about the procedure of the activity before the actual activity taking place
  • Ensuring equal handling of all stakeholders and all inputs
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