Discussion groups work best when there are enough participants that no one person has to carry too much of the burden of keeping the discussion going and that there can be multiple perspectives presented and discussed. Four persons is a good minimum. The group should also be small enough that everyone can comfortably hear each other as you talk around the table and there is sufficient time for all to participate. Eight is about the largest you want the group to be.
After you have contacted between three to seven persons who are interested, take leadership responsibility for getting the group started. Arrange a time and place to meet. The agenda for this first meeting will include three items:
We suggest that you meet every two to three weeks. Meeting more frequently, say weekly, can be very satisfying, provided all members can get the reading done. But for those with work and family responsibilities, reading, and preparing to discuss, one significant text per week is probably too much work. You don't want to take on too much, fail, and lose heart. Once a month is probably too infrequent, as when, as happens, some member of the group misses a meeting for good cause, he or she will then go two months without meeting the group. That's too long a time to maintain the intimacy that an effective discussion group requires. This is also the time to take up the issue of commitment to the group. As we said, sometimes things --illness, unscheduled business travel, or other unforeseeable and unavoidable obligations-- will hinder someone attending the group; and you must be forbearing of such absences. But the group will not be effective unless the members commit to attending every meeting and arriving prepared.
We've found through experience that discussion groups are most effective when they are "fun taken seriously". The ancient Greeks and Romans held their philosophical discussions at dining and drinking parties. In fact, the word symposium, which now means a gathering for scholarly exchange, originally, in Greek, meant getting together to drink wine. Wine or beer can relax the participants, lose their tongues, and generally engender camaraderie. But, as we all know, too much alcohol dulls the senses. We suggest that if you drink at your discussion, you stick to beer or wine in moderation. And lay off the hard stuff. Likewise, the food, if any, served during the discussion should be light. If you want to have dinner together, dine first and then take up the discussion after dinner. A good rule to follow is that of Benjamin Franklin:
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
The place for the discussion can be a private home, a quiet table in a restaurant or other public place, a conference room, or any other place that is convenient and without distractions. You should plan on two hours of discussion. And you should call the group to order and begin the discussion promptly at the designated time. Again we want you to enjoy the discussion, and you'll enjoy it more if all the participants treat it as an important commitment which must be observed. For each session have a different member of the group lead the discussion. Everyone is expected to come having read and thought about the reading material and ready to discuss it. The leader's job is to be very well prepared so he or she can draw out the members in discussion and keep the discussion focused on the text.
Focus on the text is important. In fact, the group will fall apart if you do not stick to the text you all have committed to reading. Reference to outside sources, such as maps or brief explanations of major events or persons in the text can be introduced into the discussion from time to time if the members find that helpful. But you must be very careful to limit the use of such outside materials. The persons in the group will bring differing levels of prior knowledge from their formal education or private reading. Those with less prior knowledge can be intimated by the "experts" and hesitate about contributing to the discussion. You want a group in which every member can contribute. The best way to achieve that is to limit discussion to the text that everyone in the group has agreed ahead of time to read for the discussion session.
We have found that a good way to proceed is for the leader to offer a summary of the text, along the way raising questions and commenting on salient points, with the members of the group jumping into the discussion. The leader may wish to prepare in advance some discussion questions. But he should not follow slavishly his own outline if the members want to discuss other salient points. The leader, however, is responsible for keeping the discussion focused on the text and may need to rein in, gently, any members who digress too far from the text at hand.
Receive the opinions and interpretations of the members with respect, even if you disagree. Remember, that the underlying question being "how shall we live our lives?" all participants are equally qualified to offer opinions and interpretations. No one in the group is master; none is pupil; all are fellow inquirers.
Here are some tips for a productive and fun discussion group