Rewarding dinner table conversations have a lot in common with effective facilitation skills.

We’ve all been there.  Seated near the end of a long rectangular table at a dinner party or social gathering (remember those days?).  You are relegated to spend the evening conversing with those 2 or 3 people at your end of the table.  Sometimes there is chemistry, and it works out great and other times it feels like it’s going to be a very, very long evening.

I was laughingly reminded of this predicament in an episode of Larry David’s newest season of Curb your Enthusiasm.  The episode featured a dinner party in which the “middle seat” at the table was occupied by someone who droned on and on about their issues and interests without engaging a single other person.  The party’s host, Susie Green, remarked afterwards that she had selected the “wrong middle.” The question posed for all of us to ask ourselves is “at a dinner party, do you have the conversational skill to handle the responsibility of a middle position and command the two sides of the table?”

I got to thinking that the middle seat at a dinner party is akin to being a good facilitator. When you conduct a meeting, a brainstorming session, or facilitate project planning, you aim to bring out the best ideas, build collaborative energy and reach consensus – not unlike the dynamics of a robust dinner party.  You must be able to:

  • Bring both sides of the table together around one topic. While there will always be chit-chat amongst participants in small groups – having someone who can engage the entire group for a brief period makes for a much richer experience.
  • Listen to all voices and see what rises to the top. Not only are you visually scanning the room, but you’re listening to all and determining if certain themes are taking hold.  Leveraging those thematic threads can produce lively conversation.
  • Make sure everyone is heard. In the middle, you are observing who is silent or less engaged and you do your best to bring them into the conversation.

I certainly aspire to being a good middle, but I haven’t always been that way.  I still recall an incident of over 20 years ago when I attended a corporate team dinner meeting and ended up getting engaged in a conversation with a colleague seated next to me that monopolized my attention that night.  The reality was we were having our own private meeting and no one else was included.  The CEO spoke to me later and schooled me on the skill of inclusive conversation.  I shudder to think of it now but am grateful for the lesson.  I’ve taken the middle seat responsibility very seriously ever since.

So, as you enter 2022, think of leading from the middle as a goal worth pursuing.  You’ll improve your listening, create an inclusive environment, and enrich the quality of the conversation.  Happy New Year.