Kitchen table conversations

Kitchen table conversations (KTCs) are a great way to enable voters to have their say on how they are being represented and how they should be represented, and for these comments to be communicated to their MP and others. Anyone can host a kitchen table conversation. Doing so will enable people you know to share:

  • What they are happy and unhappy about in Australian politics and in how they are represented in their electorate
  • The issues that are important to them
  • How they want to be represented in the future.

To host a kitchen table conversation, you just need to invite up to nine friends, neighbours, family members, work colleagues, fellow organisation members or anyone else to join you for a one-off, two-hour group conversation. You meet in a home, or anywhere that’s comfortable and convenient. You come up with set of questions to discuss. You choose a ‘facilitator’ – you, the host or someone else – to coordinate the conversation, and a ‘scribe’ to takes notes. The notes from all the conversations can be collected and turned into a report on the views of participants in KTCs in the electorate, and may contribute to a broader national report as well.

The electorate-level report can be given to your MP, to other candidates, and to any local media, and be made available online to the electorate’s voters. It can be the starting point for broader community discussion, and for dialogue with the MP and candidates, about the things that matter to the people of the electorate. It’s an opportunity for voters to have their say and be heard, and to connect with others, and it can introduce new people to the electorate action group and its work of enhancing democracy.

Arranging a kitchen table conversation

You invite up to nine people who live in your electorate to join you for a two-hour conversation. Work out beforehand what you want to say when inviting them. If you’re unsure what to say, some things you might mention are as follows:

  • This will be a friendly discussion of about [number of] people for two hours at [location] on [date and time], about how you can be better represented in your federal electorate and how Australian politics can work better.
  • Someone will be taking notes, and the comments from different KTCs will contribute to an electorate report and possibly an Australia-wide report on how KTC participants think Australian democracy can be improved, but comments in the report will be anonymous.
  • This is being organised by a new non-partisan group in your electorate that is seeking to help voters improve how they are represented. There is a growing number of such groups in electorates across Australia. A new national organisation, Active Democracy Australia, has been set up to support their formation and development.
  • You are welcome to participate in the new electorate group, and to check out Active Democracy Australia’s website.

You can, if you like, also let them know the discussion questions beforehand, so that they have time to think about them.

Work out a time for the conversation. You can decide on the time beforehand, or discuss it with the first few people you invite, or offer everyone a few alternative times and see which one suits best. (Scheduling platforms like Doodle can help with this.)

Work out a suitable place for your conversation. It can be your home, someone else’s home, or some other comfortable venue where you have privacy and can hear each other speak without disturbing others there. You can also hold the conversation online if health, mobility or distance issues prevent people meeting in person. If it’s online you’ll need to choose a communication platform that participants are able to use.

For in-person conversations, we suggest you provide refreshments or invite people to bring a plate.

You will need a scribe, someone who can take notes of what people are saying. This can be you, but if you are also facilitating the conversation you should think about whether this should be done by someone else. Further on are some pointers for scribing.

We suggest you take a few photos of the KTC, and submit one or two for possible inclusion in the Report. When taking the photos, check if everyone is happy about being in a published photo. Names are not essential, but if people are named in captions, you’ll need to get permission for that too and record names.

Facilitating the discussion

This section is addressed to the facilitator, who may be the host or someone else. The aim of these conversations is for participants to each have their say on the questions asked. The group is not debating responses, or seeking to arrive at a ‘right answer’ or common position. Your electorate group can create further opportunities for longer discussions of particular topics, or KTC participants can arrange their own follow-up conversations, with more informal, back-and-forth discussion. The scribe will take notes of all responses, and these will contribute to the report or reports produced.

The different parts of the two-hour kitchen table conversation are as follows:

  • Welcome and brief introduction by you (just a couple of minutes). Introduce the scribe and say that participants’ comments will contribute to the electorate report, but that no names or identifying details will go beyond this group (other than photos with permission). Start circulating the Demographic Information sheet (if you haven’t already done so among those arriving first).
  • Group discussion agreements, if you wish to have them. If you do, the following is a possibility: ‘We agree to be respectful of and listen to each other, to not interrupt each other or have side conversations, to stick to the topic, to turn off or put mobiles on silent and not use them unless absolutely necessary, and to stay within the allotted time when answering questions.’ Be careful not to get into a long discussion about these agreements, as this can eat up your limited time.
  • Questions and answers: Decide beforehand whether participants ‘go round the circle’ to answer each question, or whether they just speak in the order in which they wish to speak. Participants may decline to answer a particular question.
  • Invitations to participate further. After the discussion, we encourage you to invite participants to do two further things:
    • To host a conversation themselves. This will probably be the major way through which new conversations are initiated. If they are interested, refer them to the person in the electorate action group who is coordinating KTCs, and also refer them to this information on the website. As well, you can, if you like, offer to have a further chat with them to share your learnings from the experience.
    • To join and participate in the electorate action group. The effectiveness of the electorate group will very much depend on how many people contribute to its work and the time they can give, so it’s important to take this opportunity to invite people to participate. This website suggests the kinds of activities groups can engage in. Give participants relevant contact details so they can follow this up.
  • Concluding remarks. To round off, perhaps ask participants to take a moment (just 30 seconds even) to say what they thought or felt about the conversation and what was important for them. You can also thank everyone (including the scribe) and make your own concluding remarks. You can also offer to send them a link to the report produced, or tell them how this can be accessed.

To make sure you can fit all this into two hours you will need to allocate beforehand a maximum time for each of these parts of the conversation, including how long each person has to answer each question. For example, if you allocate 100 minutes for the questions and answers, then you divide this by 5 (the number of questions) and then by the number of participates (say, 8). This will mean that each person has 2½ minutes to answer each question.

As part of these time calculations, you need to decide whether there will be a separate time within the two hours for refreshments (at the start, middle or end), or whether you’ll allocate time for that beyond the two hours, or just have refreshments during the conversation.

Timing is important. You don’t want to have some questions unanswered when two hours are up. You can – with participants’ permission – extend the discussion time, but this may not be possible or desirable given participants’ other commitments, transport arrangements and preferred duration for the session, and you don’t want individuals leaving the conversation in dribs and drabs. You might suggest that people arrive 15 minutes early for a prompt start at the advertised time, and don’t wait too long for latecomers.

At the end of the conversation, after others have left, go through the notes with the scribe, while memories of the conversation are fresh, to check that it’s an accurate and sufficient record of what was said, making additions and amendments as necessary (or if you took the notes, do this yourself).

Role of the scribe

It’s important to have a written record of what’s said in the conversation, so that these comments can be compiled into the report to be given to MP and others. Here are some tips for the scribe on how to do this:

  • You can’t write fast enough to get down everything that’s said, and it’s better that you don’t, because it needs to be briefer than that. But get down what you can, as accurately as you can.
  • Don’t censor any comments you disagree with. This is a record of all participants’ views.
  • Try to include the things that make a participant’s contribution particularly interesting, such as anecdotes, examples and distinctive words and phrases. Use quote marks to show verbatim quotes.
  • Don’t include names or other identifying details of participants in the final version of your notes.
  • Start each person’s contribution with an asterisk or something similar to distinguish it from contributions before and after.
  • If you are also a participant, make sure you note down your own responses or have someone else do this.
  • Go over your notes as soon as possible after the conversation finishes, while it is still fresh in your mind, with the facilitator (if there is a separate facilitator). Make changes or additions as necessary, so that when you type it up you don’t have to rely on your memory.
  • Type it up in a Word document within the following few days:
    • Write each question (2-5 only) as a heading, and then under each one list your notes of each person’s response, with a separate dot point for each person. Don’t include their names or any identifying details.
    • Provide a summary of the demographic information about participants, as indicated in the Summary of Demographic Information form below.
    • Include the location and date of the KTC and the name and contact details of at least one contact person on each document sent.
  • Send all this to the person in the electorate group who is collecting it, together with photos.

Some may wonder why these conversations are not being taped. The reasons are as follows. Taping a discussion can create a different atmosphere, one that may lead participants to feel awkward and talk much less freely. And if you tape it and then take notes from this, you will need to listen to the whole conversation again – and if you replay any sections, it will be even longer. Finally, notes from a taped conversation are likely to be longer and more detailed than are necessary or useful.

Conclusion

With this information you should be able to successfully run a kitchen table conversation and pass on information from it that can contribute to an electorate report on what voters want and expect of their democracy. If you have any queries or problems consult the person in your electorate action group responsible for coordinating kitchen table conversations. You can also check out the following sources of information on KTCs here and here and here.

The questions again

  1. Please introduce yourself, and tell the group a few things about you that you’d like to share.
  2. What are some things you really value, in this electorate and its people, in Australia and its people, and in our political system?
  3. What are you particularly concerned about in this electorate and Australia as a whole?
  4. What areas of government policy do you feel most strongly about, and why?
  5. How can the operations of our political system, and the behaviour of politicians, be improved so voters are better served?

Connect

Please get in touch with any comments, questions or suggestions you may have.