What is a Jeffersonian Dinner?

Written by Taylor Buonocore and Mollie Khine

You may have been invited to attend a Jeffersonian Dinner — or better yet, you are interested in hosting one of your own. So what exactly is a Jeffersonian Dinner?

The increasingly popular concept of the Jeffersonian Dinner gets its name from the third U.S. President and Founding Father, who among his many accolades, is known to have been quite the host. Starting in the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson invited colleagues and thought leaders from across the region to gather in his home for dinner and discussion of important topics of the day.

Imagine a large wooden table set for a lavish meal, likely prepared fresh from the gardens at Monticello. Guests were seated and a lively conversation would ensue. Uniquely, dinner guests would partake in the conversation as a single group, rather than conversing only with the those who were seated nearest. This created a setting which highlighted the knowledge and perspectives of every individual at the table over a single expert or speaker. Thoughts were shared and stories were told. These evenings of conversation became known as a valuable source of knowledge for attendees as well as the President himself.

Following dinner, guests returned to their homes, energized to share what they had learned with their own communities.

Jefferson was onto something.

In recent years, Jeffersonian Dinners have gained popularity with those seeking to elevate their typical dining room chatter and more meaningfully connect with others. “The power of the party,” a term used by Carla McDonald of The Salonnière, spotlights the unmatched impact of face-to-face moments for building relationships. In fact, President John Adams (to whom Thomas Jefferson was VP) said “a dinner party is worth a thousand meetings.”

Jeff Walker, who delivered a popular TED talk on the subject of Jeffersonian Dinners, spoke to the value of sharing knowledge real-time calling the experience a “one-mind conversation” where better ideas are generated when a group discusses and explores a theme together, as opposed to an individual who represents a single perspective.

The Jeffersonian model is incredibly effective. Jeffersonian Dinners give life to deep learning by tapping into the wisdom of the room. They also result in deeper human connection, as attendees often share perspectives and personal stories in ways that are not as common day-to-day. Especially important in a divisive political climate, the model creates a respectful space where differing perspectives can be shared, and heard. The result of which is connections formed that last well beyond the shared meal, and a conversation that lives on.

You can help bring back conversation.

We’re under constant threat of distraction, misinformation and feelings of isolation thanks in part to social media. But in keeping the magic of the dinner party alive you, too, can bring to life a rich experience and productive exchange of ideas. Because good old fashioned, technology free conversations will never go out of style.

Host Your Own. Calling all ringleaders!

If you’re interested in hosting, here are a few simple steps to keep in mind when planning a Jeffersonian style gathering of your own.

Curate your guest list: Think about the people that you know — your friends, colleagues and neighbors. What a wealth of knowledge they must have, and it’s likely you rarely invest the time to learn about it. Build a guest list of 6–15 individuals who share an interest on the conversation topic (more below) and who will bring a diversity of perspectives — and personalities — to the table.

Choose a conversation topic and prepare question prompts: Think big, and choose a topic you are interested in learning more about. It’s important that the topic be something broad enough to discuss from a variety of angles, but narrow enough to dive deep. For example, big themes like Friendship, Knowledge, Serendipity, Impermanence and Bravery tend to be universally relatable. Prepare a set of question prompts to guide discussion about the topic. Focus on open ended questions that use keywords like “What,” “How” and “Why” — these words invite deeper responses.

Familiarize yourself with the format and set clear expectations for your guests: Remember that unlike a typical gathering where guests chat socially with the people seated nearby, a Jeffersonian Dinner invites a whole table conversation about a particular theme. In order to break this social norm, it’s helpful to set expectations for your guests in advance, and again at the start of the event. Put your facilitator hat on — or ask a friend to do so — and keep the conversation on theme. If/when the conversation starts to veer too far off course, try introducing a new question to refocus on the theme.

Don’t forget to share your takeaways: The purpose of the Jeffersonian Dinner was (and still is) for each person to take away something new — an idea, a new perspective, or perhaps a question to ponder further. To wrap up the conversation, invite each attendee to think about their key takeaway from the discussion. Sharing these takeaways aloud helps summarize insights, and provides a moment for each person to acknowledge that which was meaningful to them.

Looking for some extra support? Meet Convers(ate).

Convers(ate), makes it easy to host your own Jeffersonian Dinner. With a quick click to order you can have your very own Jeffersonian Dinner in a box, with 30 universally-relatable conversation topics to choose from, clear instructions for both you and your guests, a facilitator pocket guide to keep with you at the table, and takeaway cards for each person to capture aha moments from the conversation.

Cheers to gathering with purpose, and to the learning and connection that follows.

What do you think? If you have a tip to share, we’d love to learn from you. Drop us a line at hello@convers-ate.com.