You know how you always read about that perfect dinner party—the one where you have your dream team sitting around the same table? Usually Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Jesus, and Ghandi are on the short list of attendees.

Well, two weeks ago, I attended the most amazing dinner. This was due in large part to the attendees, of course. But what was unique was the format. It was called a Jeffersonian dinner, and the goal of these is to create a loosely structured exchange of ideas around a central theme. I came away convinced that this is the best way to enjoy a dinner and take full advantage of the backgrounds and wisdom of the attendees. So if you have the desire to create a special evening for you and people you want to get to know, here’s how to do it.

First, make it happen! I want to give a shout out to Bill Rigler at Naropa University, who pulled this together, at the inspiration of Naropa’s board chair, Jerry Colonna, and president, Chuck Lief.

Second, come up with around 10 people you think would be interesting to have at your dinner table. They should be people with different backgrounds and interests who are interesting to you but whom you know little about. I casually knew two of the 12 people at our dinner but had never broken bread with them nor had a particularly deep discussion. So I was a bit apprehensive about what might occur. You may have experienced this before: What do you talk about with folks who are new to your universe?

The format (step three) solves that dilemma because attendees receive a topic in advance, along with a rule stating that they may talk only to the group, not just the person sitting next to them.

That rule is the beauty of the format, as you have end up having an engaging discussion while getting to know everyone at the table. Our topic: Who was the most effective leader you have encountered and why? I am incredibly passionate about both this topic and the leader who influenced me, so I was thrilled to share my story with the group.

Finally, pick a spot where you can sit around a table in a setting that allows you both to hear and be heard by everyone else at the table. We had a private room at a wonderful local restaurant, but having this at someone’s home would be fabulous, too.

Try it and be amazed!

About the author

Jane Miller

Jane Miller

Jane Miller is CEO of ProYo Frozen Smoothie, CEO and founder of JaneKnows.com—a career advice website—and author of Sleep Your Way to the Top (and other myths about business success). She has 30 years of executive and management experience at PepsiCo, Rudi's Organic Bakery and other companies.

  • Jane Strode Miller

    Also, this is an amazing way to make connections…and who doesn’t like good food, great conversation and a little vino???

  • hugomeninoaguiar

    Hi Jane, any ice breaking games? Introductions? How to kickstart the discussion? Some people struggle with the fist 10-15 min, they are not confortable on introductions and etc.I know red wine is a way, but aside that? 🙂 Thanks for the post!

  • Rick Patch

    awesome.

  • arcanestudio

    Here’s one
    to try: We often begin our neighborhood meetings with “awwws and
    applause” where we all have an opportunity to share the constructive work
    or the heartwarming stories of what’s happening in our neighborhood community.It gives us to a chance to understand more about what our neighbors observe, understand the values we hold and celebrate the positive.

  • knapprl17

    I found this article really interesting. I just joined a new soccer team and we still have not really gotten to know each other well on a deeper level than soccer. The girls that were already on the team have connections that do not include the new comers. I feel that this activity would help start connections between my teammates and me. It would encourage the girls to talk to everyone at their table and give them a topic other than soccer to talk about. I am definitely going to suggest this for our next team bonding activity!

  • osonbol

    I think it’s one of the interesting steps that you might find to host a dinner at your table or house, depends wherever you are hosting. I think these steps will help you more socialize with the people working with you or living next to you that will help us to know each other much better.

  • Kay

    I liked this article very much. I’m an international student at university, and I thought I want to host the dinner with those who are different nationalities and in different majors. The discussion will be a great opportunity to understand own culture, or learn own study field. Hope I can make it happen!

  • erin oneill

    Just had such an experience with seasoned thoughtful hosts. We all brought something to eat or drink, this created investment and starting small talk. A central topic was shared: new artwork was recently bought and displayed. All conversation revolved around it, the artist, what it meant and if it mattered.
    Only a few of the people had met before and diversity was vast (anesthesiologist, gun lovers, art curator, elementary school teacher, realtor, ‘born again’ atheist, etc…) so, passions stirred. Including “Whats the point of the conversation and why are we wasting our valuable time talking about it”.

    We all grew, realized and acknowledged active listening and healthy debate around 1 topic with everyone engaged and respected turned into growth for everyone and bonded many.
    Btw. other conversations later spun out between these unrelated folks yet, the enhanced spirit and community remained.
    Several people left saying… ‘that was so, stimulating and interesting I never thought of those things like that before.”

  • hmtorre1

    This is a great idea!

    Do you ever have those days that just seem heavy? A deep talk sort of day? My friends and I often go to each others’ houses and put on some music that provokes our thoughts.

    After a short music session, we start to discuss certain topics. It’s not a dinner, or anything, but it’s most definitely our own little version of this wonderful idea!

  • hmtorre1

    That’s a great idea! I hope you’re able to do it!

    A possible great question to provoke conversation/thought would be: What influences in your life does your ethnicity serve?

  • Kaylee Raucci

    I get when you’re a host you want your guests to have a wonderful time, you don’t want awkward silence, and you don’t want conflict. I just don’t think it really matters that you give them a topic in advance to talk about or have at least ten interesting people attend your party. I think it’s all about spontaneity, you shouldn’t have to force your guests to talk to each other. I’m almost positive that they will start conversations about whatever they please and with whomever they want to. I think if you plan out every detail at some point while their sticking to the script, or topic of discussion, they’ll run out of things to say and then it starts to get awkward. So just go with the flow as I like to say.

  • CricketFuller

    I’d love to hear more about the structure of the conversation here. Was there a prompt? A question? Was there a facilitator who ensured everyone was heard? Was the topic necessarily controversial? It seems some of these elements would be crucial to success of the dinner party as a vehicle for discussion among people with diverse views and backgrounds. I certainly appreciate the concept.

    Polarization in politics and society has become widespread, visible, and much discussed. We can look at the ways in which Supreme Court decisions, government, the economy, demography, population trends, and more have all fed into the “culture wars” and “political polarization. And we can look at these entities and trends as what we need to “change” to fix the problem. But at the end of the day, polarization is a fundamentally interpersonal thing. When we talk about people, to people, instead of policies to the echo-chamber of folks who think like us, we begin to become more open-minded and flexible. Perhaps we think a particular political group is “evil.” But then we find ourselves breaking bread with someone who identifies as a member of that group, and we discover that this person isn’t evil, and they come to their beliefs from a certain place and context.

    Dinners like these are key to overcoming societal polarization on the interpersonal level. It’s “reaching across the aisle” at the most practical point.

  • Jakob Cohen

    I have always found the question, “If you could go to dinner with anyone from history who would you go with?” an extremely intriguing prompt. It’s interesting to think that in the right situation a dinner party can be a mind-stimulating and idea building session. I have always tried to make my home an environment where all people feel welcome, comfortable, and safe. If all feel safe this dinner party has the potential to foster revolutionary ideas just like in the salons of France during the Enlightenment period. Great ideas need a certain environment to grow and flourish so purposefully creating that space is very logical but innovative.

  • lpierce34

    Something about dinner parties that has always annoyed me is that your experince often solely depends on who you are seated next to. So this idea is brilliant first of all for simply making a rule that you can only talk to the group and not an individual. That makes everyone’s experience more interesting but it also means that so much more knowledge is shared and gained between everyone. This is a good way to approach some sort of big problem or mission one wishes to solve and reallly get ideas flowing.

  • alemoin1

    Although never engaging in this formal of the type of dinner. I have had very similar experiences over more casual dinner and conversation. I attend the most geographically diverse college in the entire country. As you can imagine, the transition was very interesting and involved a major adjustment socially. Being gable to sit down with 10-15 other students over floor dinner and have this type of discussion had a very similar and memorable effect.

  • Kyree Brooks

    This article is very useful for professional dinner table making. In order to establish a successful dinner you would need to use your thinking skills. It starts with the people and putting them in a social environment where their is good conversation. Putting a healthy dinner together with professionals wont be easy, but these are some useful tips to create one. I agree with Miller when she told how sitting everyone close and being able to hear is most important because that is good communication. Thank you.

  • Nathan

    Thanks! This would be such a great way to have conversations with people. I wonder how I could convince new people to come.

  • Aarynn Bosshart

    Wow, that’s an interesting idea. Was the formality of having a predetermined topic strange? Did the group ever get off topic? Did anyone break the rule of not talking to the person next to them? Did everyone have a chance to speak? If the answers to these questions are no, no, no, and yes, I think this is a fabulous idea! I like that the question allowed other guests to get to know a little bit about you. With the right group of people, the discussion that follows from a dinner party like this would probably make a great book. I think you should have an Unreasonable dinner party with various authors from this sight!

  • Camillewuensch

    I have never heard of that kind of dinner before! Sounds very interesting and never an awkward silence. How did the topic get picked? And could you pick any topic? I might in the future have to try a dinner like this, I feel like you could really get to know your friends or even family members better by doing this.

  • Trista Radloff

    Yeah this is an extremely interesting dinner format! It definitely takes some of the pressure of the guests to engage in small talk and kind of gets the guests to dive right into a more deep conversation of who has impacts them and how they have changes because of their mentor. Very interesting!

  • Zintia Martinez

    I think this is the kind of dinner one will put together when having friends from different cultures and religions. I will consider this sometime soon since people I talk to happen to have really different ideas. I will see if this work, I think is a great idea.

  • ReneeKirch19

    Reading about this topic was interesting to me! It’s not often that I get to read about the perfect dinner party. Thanks for sharing! Reading about the dinner experience you had made me think about how different it was from many dinners that happen today. Personally, when I have dinner, it is either by myself or with my friends. The discussions we have together is never anything too interesting, and to be honest,we are usually on our phones. It would be awesome to engage in the type of dinner party you had. Have you hosted your own dinner party recently?

  • Jessica White

    Interesting topic. This could be a great way to get a company together to help a cause. One thing that I might recommend would be to try to find a place with round tables, not long rectangular ones. What I have found with group discussions, even when the group members do not know each other, is that a hierarchy forms sometimes. Those who sit at the ends may be more of the leaders of the group, which can be helpful to persuade the conversation but also can hinder the conversation by possibly encouraging the conversation to be one sided. Food for thought!

  • HelpHealth002

    Thanks for writing this article Jane. I think this is something great for anybody thinking of holding a dinner party to read! It’s something that many don’t think of doing when talking about holding a dinner party. Most parties I’ve been to are all small talk about each others lives, so this concept is completely new to me! I think having a dinner party designed to share each others ideas is brilliant! It allows everybody to have a good time while also helping to improve their own lives. Have you hosted a dinner party of this nature yet?

  • Mitch Sween

    Thanks Jane Miller. This month in National Geographic there is an article about how food brings family and friends together. It only goes to reason that incorporating food with topics that beg for discussion add to a more dynamic social experience.

  • It is such a great idea to both having a great meal and a great experience all rolled into one! Not only are you filling yourself physically, but mentally too. I am sure everyone has gone to a dinner party and either did not know the people who were sitting at the same table or did not engage in conversations that had substance or reason.
    I agree with Jessica White’s comment. Using round tables instead of rectangular tables would encourage the party members to engage more in conversations.
    Awesome article!

  • CoachDavis24

    This is amazing! I love this idea. I don’t know who I would get to come or who would want to come, but I want to try this sometime. I love meeting new people and hearing and talking about new idea’s. I actually think having it at a local establishment is a better idea. This way it is no ones home turf and everyone is kinda on the same playing field. Sometimes people can feel intimidated or uncomfortable by being in someone else’s home and vice versa. I would love to have a disscussion about education and the best way to fix it.

  • CoachDavis24

    How do we fix education?….. Go!

  • Kenzi Weidman

    This is a really great idea! Sometimes I get sick of the same old dinner parties where we just make small talk. Making conversation around a central idea would make the dinner not only more interesting, but also more insightful. I definitely plan to try this, maybe even for a next group project for when we are throwing around ideas to try. That way people feel more relaxed and comfortable to share their ideas because it is less pressured. Awesome topic! Have you been to any of these types of dinners recently?

  • Kenzi Weidman

    Good point with regards to the round table idea. That way everyone is facing each other because then nobody feels like there is a hierarchy based on who sits at the front/end of the table, etc.

  • Kenzi Weidman

    I definitely do this with one of my friends as well. When life seems like it is spinning out of control and we need to get things off of our chest, throwing on some sappy music gets our thoughts going and we are able to speak freely and it always makes both of us feel better. I am glad others try this too!

  • Kenzi Weidman

    I agree with you when you say that “great ideas need a certain environment to grow and flourish so purposefully creating that space is very logical but innovative.” because that is exactly right! People are not going to share ideas in an environment that they don’t feel comfortable, and dinners like these would be one of the best environments there can be to feel comfortable in sharing. Good point!

  • Dena Keizer

    You proposed some really great ideas in this article! Lately, i have been having a hard time bonding with more people. This year i have made my friend circle very small and while it’s nice to have those friends you can count on, its also fun to meet new people and find more things to have in common with more people. Definitely something i could use your idea to work on!

  • Dena Keizer

    I agree! I eat dinner the same way but usually by myself. Not that there is anything wrong with that but someday when i get my own place, i would love to have a dinner party and invite more friends over. Everyone needs to eat so what better way than to throw a party centered around lots of yummy food!

  • Dena Keizer

    Speaking as a college student and my personal experiences, if there’s lots of good FOOD, then they will be more likely to come! 🙂

  • Taylor

    This is such a great idea! I have never heard of a dinner like this before and I would love to actually try to make one happen. I feel like I am always the person at dinner with nothing to say, maybe because I am too shy or because I have nothing to contribute. Most of the time at dinners I feel like you end up talking to the person you are sitting next to mostly and ignoring the rest of the group, so the rule that you cannot do that is something that I really like.

  • Brittney Glende

    This is an outstanding idea, I also have never heard of a dinner like this before. Sitting at a dinner table with people you do not know can be challenging for certain people. They may not know what to say, or they may just be very shy. Holding a dinner like this breaks all those nerves and builds your confidence. I think that a dinner like this should be held once a month on a college campus. To promote conversation and stepping outside of your comfort zone. What was it that inspired you to write this article?

  • This sounds like a great idea. I love to cook, so maybe I can also incorporate a food theme into it too. Such as having people with the same style dishes not being able to speak to each other. I wouldn’t mind trying this out. I believe that sharing our experiences with others is more important that personal growth by keeping them to ourselves. Bravo on the idea and execution.

  • tyler

    I found this so easy to relate to because I am such a people person, and I love having dinners and so forth. If I have a dinner, of course I want my guests to enjoy themselves, and even if they do not know others I want them to talk to people they do not know and it not be awkward. I think that the conversation should come naturally, and should not be forced. I think your ideas are great, but for me personally, I do not think that picking a topic, and having my guests talk about that is the best choice. I think when something is forced, that is when it becomes awkward and weird. What if someone does not know anything about the topic, then what? Or people may run out of things to say, and then everyone gets awkwardly silent. Overall, great article, and even though I do not think it would work for me personally, it may work for someone else. What would happen inthe instance that someone does not know anything about the topic you choose, what would you do?

  • shackletka05

    Thank you for sharing! I agree in a way of your experience will be more enjoyable with creative topics but forcing topics may not work best for all people involved. I believe relationships are built on the communication over what is important to one another. I do understand the point you are trying to make of just getting a conversation going because the more you get to know someones thoughts or feelings on certain subjects the closer you become.

  • hirthjp18

    I never knew they had these kinds of of dinners. This is something i’d definitely like to give a try. The idea of a topic being put out there before everyone meets lets you be little less nervous about not knowing the people. Seems like a great way to break the ice. I’m sure this lead to some great conversations. Thank you for the great article.

  • Luke Drumel

    Thanks Jane for the post! I will definitely use this reference in the future no doubt, for a health human and performance and recreation major, health has become quite the hot topic for debate in this country. I believe I could stir up some very interesting dinner conversation with such a diverse and popular topic.

  • Eric H

    I agree with this as well. A lot of people of our generation do not view dinner as a place for conversation and sharing thoughts. We sometimes eat fast and large amounts without even sharing conversations. People sit on their phones and text others while the people they should be talking to are right in front of them.

  • Tracy_Werner

    This is a great idea and a great way to get to know others and their perspectives a bit more. I think it would be extremely beneficial to get a group of people from all different majors at my university together in place and talk about something that pertains to our major and the implications it has on the world around us. I would be eager to listen to others’ ideas and how they view things. Out of curiosity, how long did the dinner take? With so many minds and ideas around one table, there is no way it ended early.

  • Schudakp21

    I definitely love the idea of inviting ten people to a dinner that you think would make it interesting is a great idea. You can only have a successful dinner party if you have the right people there together engaging in an interesting conversation. It is a good idea to bring ten people that maybe have different experiences or viewpoints so you all can get to see different ways of looking at things. But you got to make sure not to invite a person that is disrespectful and pushy with their ideas because it will bring a halt to the conversation. Great article.

  • Slepicka12

    We just recently did this for thanksgiving. There was a group of students who didn’t wanna go home or couldn’t get home for the holiday so we set up and potluck dinner for everyone to come and enjoy.

  • SasCas116

    Thank you for the article Jane, this was a great article to think about having a dinner in a new way. I am a college student, so usually dinner for me is just a quick canned soup heated up and water on the go. No effort is really put into it, and it’s not anything special at all. You make me want to try and host a dinner with this type of goal surfaced. I feel like this could really break the ice with my roommates and friends who are shy. I am excited to step out of my comfort zone and apply this article! All fingers crossed! 🙂

  • SasCas116

    That’s such a generous idea! As a college student, I would like to thank you for the tender heart you have in providing a meal for ones that you don’t necessarily connect with or know. It’s powerful and those small actions can really moves hearts of students! So thank you for such a selfless act of service. Also did you try setting a theme to conversate with them? Did it work?

  • SasCas116

    I completely agree with you! I feel like there is so much pressure to create a conversation and then even more pressure to keep it going. The idea of creating a fixed theme let’s individuals think ahead of time what they want to share and lets an individual jump into a conversation at anytime too! It’s such a fixed way to force conversation, yet it is a very successful approach.

  • SasCas116

    I agree with you! Although it’s a little strange that food is always expected during any social situation, it does change the dynamic of the situation and broadens the cultural aspect which makes for a stronger social experience. Food, conversation, family, and investing in another is the way for a strong quality time for one another.

  • SasCas116

    I have experienced this exact thing actually! I’m a Peer Mentor at UW-Whitewater and we have something called Spring training, which is a fancy way of just preparing us for the Fall. Anyways, at first we all sat at rectangular tables and the conversation was so minimal. The First Year Experience coordinator noticed our social level and requested round tables for the next day. The very next day, we were all social butterflies. It’s weird to think the shape of a table can affect something or someone, but it really does.

  • SasCas116

    There are tons of ways to convince new faces to come! Yes food is kind of expected in our society, but we can create new games after dinner, or watch a movie, or anything that will be new. Speaking from the viewpoint of a college student, whenever there is a change of the regular, we are all bound to check it out!

  • SasCas116

    Oh my goodness! I love this idea! I usually just listen to music on my own and read my bible to release my burdens, but I do agree that it would be a great idea to let the music speak to you and then let your mind express what it’s wanted to.

  • SasCas116

    That’s such a cool idea! Please do it! I would totally come. I’m all about discovering new cultures and embracing their language, food, and ways to approach things. One thing you could do is have foods from all over so that each person feels comfortable with their own nationalities foods, but then also will feel compelled to try other foods too!

  • Slepicka12

    We just all bounded over getting to know each other better which made the whole experience so much better.

  • Travis Mattice

    I like this post because it is a great way to get to meet new people. I can see it really helping when everyone has the same topic to talk about. I think it may be kind of hard to do at first since you don’t know everyone but after a few people started talking and sharing I think it would get easier to do. Thanks for the tips and sharing your experience.

  • B Keng

    Thanks for the article!This is a great way to know more about people and expand your networking.

  • SasCas116

    Exactly! I think getting to know each other, starts with being put in awkward situations around strangers, because that’s when we are bound to make new friends. It always starts with getting to know each other.

  • milleram97

    This is a really great idea!
    It can be so easy in our culture to be brainwashed into thinking and believing the norm that when new, fresh ideas come about we are taken aback by it. It is important to be educated and not naive about real problems along with the general happenings that are occurring locally and around the world.
    Without that part of the brain being engaged and thinking critically, how can any great ideas come about

  • hansends21

    It is truly amazing what getting to know others that are different from you can do for you, and what you can learn. And really, what better way than with food! I mean, this is America, right? Let’s chat and eat, I’m in!

  • Jansscor16

    This is a fantastic dinner idea! This is something that could really benefit people that attend the dinner. Getting to meet knew people is always great, and it becomes a way to network as well. I really like the rule about only being able to talk to the group, it makes the environment more inviting and everyone must follow the rule. Thank you for sharing your experience and I hope this is something I can utilize are be a part of in the future!

  • Jansscor16

    Me being a shy person I would have a very hard time at first, but I actually this environment might be easier. Initiating a conversation with a stranger is difficult for some people, but in this case everyone is in the same situation and has the same rules. I agree I think the dinner and conversations would get much easier as time went on.

  • Jansscor16

    I am right there with you, at this point in time it is difficult to do a dinner party like this in college. I am looking forward to trying this when I get older and the conversation will be more in depth than it would be now. As a shy person myself I think this idea is great because everyone is in the same situation.
    I am also looking forward to trying this out as well!

  • Amy Rink

    Thank you for posting this article! This works in all sorts of settings, whether it be with other businesses or just new coworkers. It’s a great way to get everyone together in a mutual setting which I find to be very important.

  • MattDennert

    This sounds like a lot of fun and I think I might want to try it in the future. The problem I might have is coming up with some topics to talk about.

  • ryanstorto

    This is a great idea. So many times when we are out in a big group it’s always the same thing – you sit next to your two or three closest friends during dinner and they are the only ones you basically talk to. This sounds like it would get everyone involved in the discussion since everyone is aware of the topic before arriving, you would have to talk to the entire group as a whole and the setting is one where you can see and talk to everyone easily. Terrific way to get a discussion going and to get to know new people.

  • Julia

    I think dinner is a great way for families, groups, businesses, etc get together and enjoy company. It’s a good way to discuss business in a company without the situation being uptight, but it’s also a good way to get to know other individuals in your company on a personal level. At one of my jobs, we try to have a weekly family dinner. This gives us the opportunity to discuss work, but also to just get to know one another. I think if you give your employees or co-workers the opportunity to get to know you, then they will understand and respect you more than they already do.

  • Will Ettl

    This article is a great idea. It is perfect and I think I am going to try it next time I am having a dinner party. I know it not every one will be on board but hell I do not care.

  • dwyerms07

    Great article. After reading this article i can to realize how important a business dinner can be and what someone should do at the dinner table in a business stand point. Many company use dinners to learn a lot about those who they are interviewing.

  • dwyerms07

    i agree with you. This would get everyone involved in the dinner table and have great positive affect that would come from it.

  • dwyerms07

    Very true this dinner idea was a great idea. These idea could really benefit the people who attend this dinner could walk away with a better social network.

  • Ashleigh Hartlaub

    I really like this article. A dinner setting is something that will happen at least a couple times and understanding what is being done during them is key. I really like the point of sitting somewhere where you can hear everything that is being said.

  • Ashleigh Hartlaub

    The topics could be about anything. News, family stories, sports, or just about anything. Someone at your table will probably want to talk everybody’s ears off so having a topic to talk about will be easy.

  • Ashleigh Hartlaub

    Getting to know people through food is kind of the America way since we all love food. Just making sure your proper while eating would probably be best but everyones favorite memories are around holidays with a huge feast.

  • afallon14

    I agree with you! A company dinner is something that is bound to happen at least once in your life and it is important to understand what is being done during them. Going along with your point where it is important to hear everything that is being said, it is hard to do this when you are sitting at a long table with a bunch of people because you may not be able to hear everyone. I like sitting at a round table so you are able to see everyone and hear what they are saying.

  • This is a very interesting way to make a tuesday night much more special. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Yes, dinners are VERY important to understanding each other. It’s like a date. You go out to eat or stay in, ask them questions about themselves, share stories and hopefully, you get promoted.

  • As long as you offer it, that’s all that matters. But make sure that you don’t offend anyone either.

  • Rebecca Radspinner

    I really like this idea. It ties in every well with having a diverse organizational culture. A way to help ensure that you are open to other personalties and opinions is to interact with those that you may not normally. I think it would really help to make sure that when you host these dinners is to be open and be willing to be changed by what you hear/discuss.