The Citizens Handbook
Salons, Study Circles, & Discussion Groups

Kitchen-table discussion groups
A kitchen-table discussion group is a small group of people, often neighbors, who get together in someone's home to talk, listen, and share ideas on subjects of mutual interest. The host encourages people to listen, to ask clarifying questions, and to avoid arguing or interrupting. The host also points out that there are no right or wrong ideas. Kitchen-table discussion groups are close relatives of reading and study circles.

Reading circles and Book clubs
Reading circles resemble college seminar groups except they are organized by participants. The circle agrees on a book worth reading, which everyone reads, then gets together to discuss. If the task of reading is difficult, the group might break the book into chunks, then meet to discuss each chunk. For a more interesting discussion, half of the group might read one book while the other half reads a contrasting book. Another variation is to have different people present different books. This way, participants can learn about 8 to 10 books for every one they have to read. Where a book is particularly important, two people might present on the same book, or each person could present a different part of the same book.

Study Circles*
Study Circles can be used for any topic. Because everyone is equal, both teacher and learner, you don’t need any special training. There’s usually a person who’s excited about this idea, who sets things up.

Typically, 6 to 8 people gather in the living room, teacups or wine glasses in hand. Three questions guide the evening. The first asks people to describe their own experience – to tell their story. The second asks them to think critically about their culture. The third asks them to brainstorm actions, to make plans for personal and public action. People talk by going around the circle taking turns answering the question using a congenial and convivial style of conversation. It’s conversation, not discussion. In fact, in the first session participants review the characteristics of good conversation – being interested, supportive, non-argumentative, and non-competitive. You have to begin by learning to trust others. As people tell their stories and people accept them, they learn to trust each other and feel connected and cared for. In a study circle you treat people with respect; you listen; you don’t lie; you don’t run down people behind their backs. This is how trust grows.

Let’s see what actually happens in the study circle. Let’s say . . . the topic for the evening is community. Remember the evening’s conversation revolves around three questions.
__1: When in your life have you experienced community and what does community mean to you? People tell their stories – about student housing in grad school, being in a babysitting co-op, working for a political cause, or even taking the same bus to work every day. As they tell her stories a definition of community emerges and people begin to understand its importance.
__ 2: What are the forces in our culture that make community difficult? People talk about having not having enough time, about the competitiveness of work, about the focus on appearance and status, about the pressure to succeed.
__ 3: What actions can you take to increase community in your life? People brainstorm personal action such as joining a neighborhood group, working for a political cause, or just having a neighborhood potluck. After brainstorming, each person commits to take an action and in the next session, they report to the group. As they talk about their actions, they begin to realize we also need larger institutional changes. At this point they talk about the need for policies on things like guaranteed vacations, sick leave, and parental leave. They see the need for community centers and libraries and parks they begin to talk about the ways to bring about long-term change for policies on matters such as wealth equality . . .There are so many important things about study circles on so many levels.

*Edited from Living Room Revolution, a Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good, by Cecile Andrews published by New Society Publishers in 2013. Andrew’s fine book contains a more complete discussion of study circles.

Salons are small groups of people who gather together primarily for conversation. Since their origins in the Enlightenment of the 18th century and in 19th-century France, salons have been associated with social change.

In the past, well-connected aristocratic women would organize a salon, deciding who to invite and taking care to ensure a mix of the brightest and wittiest people. The salonieres' first job was to compose the salon for the best result. The right mix of people and perspectives was and still is necessary for a lively conversation.

A small number of people works best for salons, just as it does for other forms of community. Limit the size to ten people or less if you want everyone to be part of the same discussion. Invite people with different backgrounds who will enjoy one another's company. In a seminal 1991 Utne Reader article, Stephanie Mills presented an unofficial etiquette for salons:
~ No leaders
~ Allow and address the silence
~ No cross-talk
~ No advice giving, just "I" statements
Mills admits the result of this etiquette isn't exactly conversation. It may be closer to people making little speeches. But this can be avoided if people are asked to concentrate on active listening instead of thinking about what they will say next. A small group should be able to support real dialogue. Utne Reader and New Society Publishers have since published Salons: The Joy of Conversation, a guide to setting up and running a salon. For a short how-to download Utne Reader's Salon-keepers Companion.

Community-wide study circles
Sometimes local government or a community foundation will organize a large number of study circles to deal with a difficult community problem or public policy issue. A community-wide study circles project requires funding for promotion, a paid organizer, and paid facilitators. Each circle meets for two-hour sessions at least three times. The US Study Circles Resource Center provides an on-line facilitation training manual and a step-by-step guide for getting a community-wide study circles project underway.

Community-wide study circles provide an opportunity for public education and public deliberation and help to bridge the gap between public policy and public attitudes. Participants spend time on what Daniel Yankelovich in Coming to Public Judgement calls "working through," where they examine the consequences of taking different stands on an issue in order to come to a relatively stable point of view.

The Citizen's Handbook / Home / About / Table of Contents
The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson /

cover image

The Troublemaker's Teaparty is an updated and expanded print version of The Citizen's Handbook. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.