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A lively group discussion, an intimate tête-à-tête, an inner monologue — in your view, when it comes to a good conversation, what’s the ideal number of people?

We sat around the dinner table, and chatted companionably, my group of 8 knitters and readers, last Tuesday night. The group formed when we all taught at the same school. We were all readers and knitters, and decided that we enjoyed each others’ company enough to start getting together on a regular basis. Now, perhaps five years later, only two still teach at the school, the rest of us are retired. We have many things in common, and have great discussions.

There are people in the group who talk more, and others less, but there is no monopoly of the discussion, and everyone chimes in, which makes it a good group. We tend not to interrupt each other, nor talk over each other — those are conversation killers.

The ideal number of people for a discussion varies — as it does in the prompt. A tête-à-tête is a conversation between two people; an inner monologue seems to suggest one person. It’s not so much the number of people, but how they share on the topics, respect others’ opinions, and let the speaker have his/her say without constant interruptions. I hate it when people talk over me while I’m still making a point, or when someone stops me in mid-sentence to assert their point of view or refute mine.

In school we try to teach kids to take turns when speaking and not to interrupt others when they “have the floor”, and if we apply those rules to group discourse they turn out to be fairer. It’s pointless to talk about something with other people if everyone’s voice isn’t heard and opinions or information shared. It ruins an opportunity to learn something or appreciate other points of view. In some group discussions in school, I’ve (and other teachers) used an object to pass around so that only the person holding the object could speak. If we treated all dialogue that way, it would be better.

Our group is composed of teachers. Do we follow the rules we teach better because of that? Perhaps. What if it were a group of lawyers whose goal is to win? Or salespeople adept at persuasion? Or doctors used to being authority figures? Would the outcome be the same?

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