At Unreasonable, we host programs that bring together entrepreneurs, mentors, and innovators from all over the world for weeks at a time. With so many people in one place, it can be a challenge to break the ice and allow real human connections to form. The Jeffersonian Dinner format has become an essential cornerstone at our programs for that reason. This deeply moving nightly ritual is the most effective tool in the Unreasonable arsenal for building community, fostering trust, and getting to know one another on a deeper level.
The tradition of Jeffersonian Dinners began at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in the 1700s. Jefferson thrived on surrounding himself with a host of thought leaders and used his dinner table as the centerpiece for the free-flow exchange of ideas and diplomacy.
It’s said that, due to his lack of hearing, he designed this unique dinner format for his guests to talk one at a time around a single topic of conversation. The purpose was simple: to listen, learn, and inspire one another through meaningful dialogue.
With only one person speaking at a time, participants are able to both hear what is being said and unlock the the collective wisdom of the room. Each speaker has a chance to be fully heard by every member of the table.
Because it is important that each person at the table is given time to speak and be heard, we’ve found that a table of 6-10 guests is an ideal number. To get started, spend time designing your seating chart beforehand, with each table represented by diversity critical to your topic.
Choose a topic
Pick a topic that isn’t business focused. Instead, choose something that elicits personal feelings, stories, and experiences relevant to everyone at the table. We’ve found that the best questions invoke a story from the speaker’s personal history. Below are several examples of possible Jeffersonian Dinner questions:
In your life, what individual has impacted you the most and why?
What is one of the greatest challenges you have overcome?
What gives you energy? When do you feel most alive?
Do the dang thing
Once everyone has found their seats it’s helpful for a single person in the room to explain the purpose of a Jeffersonian and how it all works. Dig in!
Assign a Jefferson: At each table, assign a “Jefferson.” This is the individual tasked with making sure that each person is able to speak without being interrupted, and that the conversation stays on track. Typically, we ask this person to speak on the topic first to set the tone for the table.
Create a safe space: Depending on the topic of conversation, Jeffersonian discussions can become deeply personal. People laugh, and often, people cry. Before beginning the conversation, it’s really important that a completely safe place is created. The assigned Jefferson should set the expectation that by participating, everyone at the table is agreeing to maintain everyone else’s privacy by not repeating what is shared during the conversation.
Ask follow-up questions: After someone has had the floor to speak uninterrupted on the dinner’s topic, dinner mates can then ask follow-up questions about what the speaker has just shared. This is not an opportunity to humble-brag or self-promote (e.g. “That story reminds me of the time when I…”). It’s a chance to listen generously, and provide value for the person sharing by inviting them to surface more of their story.
Pass it around: Once someone has had the opportunity to speak and respond to follow-up questions, they elect the next speaker “popcorn” style, meaning at random.
At the close of dinner: Jeffersonian meals are not about getting work done, they are about making human connections. If you want to network, save it for a one-on-one follow up after the conversation. At the end of the meal, simply thank your dinner mates for showing up and letting themselves be seen.
Lighting and music are key! Be intentional about how your setting can amplify the quality of conversation. To that end, round tables work best for Jeffersonian Dinners, as the purpose is to create an intimate environment that keeps everyone engaged.
Deep listening builds trust, respect, and partnerships. Though it can be uncomfortable at first to host a dinner where only one person speaks at a time, commit to the process as “Jefferson.” Helping others to learn to listen is equally critical to the communities we belong to outside of the dinner table as well. Listening is fundamental to success.
We have referred to this format as a “dinner” but it can certainly be run at other times of the day. Once a week at Unreasonable, our team does a “Jeffersonian Lunch” using all the same methodologies. Our colleagues in the U.K. have also run this Jeffersonian format around afternoon tea. Do what works best for you!