For some reason, many trainers and conference planners think that it doesn’t matter how many people are seated at a table.
If the seating decision is based on the number that can fit around a table, the group can end up with 8 or 10 individuals. The law of diminishing returns applies when there are too many people at a table trying to discuss a topic. It is very difficult for people to hear each other or to have an opportunity to speak, both of which are very frustrating for the participants. Involving too many people defeats the entire purpose of a table discussion group.
There is another reason why limiting the number of people involved in a table discussion group is wise. Many years ago, Virginia Satir pointed out in her book People Making that just adding one more person to a conversation will increase the number of interpersonal connections geometrically.
For example, when there are two people talking to each other, there are two interactions: Person A interacts with Person B (1 connection) and Person B interacts with Person A (1 connection).
However, if we add another person to the mix so that we have three people communicating with each other, the number of interactions jumps to six: Persons A and B interact (2 connections). Persons A and C interact (2 connections). Persons B and C interact (2 connections).
Now, if we add a fourth person to the mix, the number of interactions jumps to twelve! Persons A and B interact (2 connections). Persons B and C interact (2 connections) Persons C and D interact (2 connections). Persons D and A interact (2 connections.) Persons A and and C interact (2 connections), and Persons B and D interact (2 connections).
The equation is [n squared minus n] , where n = the number of people.
With eight people, the number of potential interactions jumps to 56. [8 x 8 = 64 ø 8 = 56] With ten people, the number of potential interactions shoots up to 90!!!
So, what is the ideal size for a table discussion group? There should be an odd number, to ensure there is someone to break a tie. That odd number, as far as I’m concerned, should be five. Twenty potential interactions is plenty, don’t you think?