NEWS

The Salon Operator’s Handbook

Here is everything you need to know to lead your own Burke-Paine Society cross-partisan discussion group--known as a a “salon.” 

What is BPS?

The Burke-Paine Society is a grassroots movement to restore civic discourse in America. Our mission is to bring together all Americans in salon-style discussions to build people-to-people ties across political lines. Our vision is to create active and productive discussions among all Americans.

As citizens with diverse views, we share a common sense of alarm at today’s breakdown of political dialogue.  And we are united in choosing to do something about it—starting in our own neighborhoods.

BPS is named after Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, two thinkers who influenced the Founding Fathers.  Although Burke and Paine represented two opposite political camps, they carried on a thoughtful dialogue that elevated the debates of their day.  We hope to recapture this spirit and fix how Americans talk about politics.

The problem

Political dialogue in this country is broken.  More Americans no longer see their fellow citizens as partners in the project of self-governance.  Instead, we are hostile warring tribes—distrustful, misunderstanding, and mutually fearful.  This hostility is fomented by politicians and pundits with a vested interest in deepening divisions.

Americans don’t need to agree on politics—there will always be passionate, even painful differences.  But we do need to talk, listen, and work through differences productively.  Without real political dialogue, we lose the bonds of community that allow our Constitutional system to function.

This is a job for citizens: dialogue can’t be outsourced to politicians or pundits.  Washington, D.C. tends to mirror the country as a whole.  If citizens are mired in hate and fear, then our elected representatives will behave the same way.  While political parties, the press, and social media have shared in creating this problem, none will take steps to solve it unless they face pressure from the grassroots level.

The solution

The Burke-Paine Society is working inside individual communities, bypassing our broken national institutions to convene neighbors directly for face-to-face dialogue.  We call these “salons,” after the Founding Era tradition of small, informal gatherings in friendly settings for lively topical conversation.

Talking in person is our way around the filters that distort public dialogue.  When people talk face-to-face, there is no media filter to shoehorn everything into canned narratives of left-versus-right conflict.  There is no politician or pundit filter to stoke tribal outrage.  There is no social media filter to reward drive-by sarcasm or enable anonymous abuse.

Salons facilitate the meaningful exchange of ideas among friends and strangers.  The goal isn’t to forge compromises or have everyone meet in the middle.  We simply aim for a functioning marketplace of ideas at the local scale, where disagreement is just the starting point for genuine conversation.  If enough Americans join us, we can ignite a political renaissance from the bottom up.

How salons work

The salon is a flexible event that can be adapted to your community.  Its components can be mixed and matched within a single salon or swapped out from one salon to the next.

Experimentation is an important part of the salon model.  The Burke-Paine Society doesn’t have a perfect, one-size-fits-all approach—in fact, that probably doesn’t exist.  We need your ideas and feedback to find out what really works for your community.

Pledge.  Before each salon, first-time participants agree to adhere to basic values that foster productive dialogue: inclusiveness, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and humility.  They also agreed to adhere to Salon Ground-Rules. Participants’ commitment to uphold BPS values and ground-rules gives everyone confidence that the salon will be administered in a fun and effective way.

Format.  The classic salon is a loosely-structured small group discussion, where all participants have a chance to be heard, and hear others, at an individual level.  From time to time, salons will also host guest speakers or panels, drawn from the local community, who share informed perspectives in their area and answer questions from salon participants.

Topic.  Most salons begin with broad topics, with participants discussing the problems with our political process or sharing the life experiences that have shaped their own politics.  Salons also can address the process of politics—for example, by exploring a skill like active listening. As trust is established, salons begin to focus on a specific political or social issue, which could be timely (like immigration) or enduring (like abortion). 

Size.  Most salons are about 25 people. We have had salons as small as 6 people or as large as 50.  When salons are too small, there may not be enough diversity of viewpoints. When too large, the salon loses its intimacy and participants are not as willing to speak.

Attendees.  The simplest way to assemble a salon is by recruiting from the facilitator’s own personal network.  Salons that recruit from a broader local audience tend to be more diverse and do more to bring the community together. Facebook, Meetup, college campuses, or community centers are great places to reach out and find new participants. Burke-Paine Society’s website also lets people sign up.

Location and time.  Salons can occur in a public place or a home.  Restaurants, bars, lounges, schools, parks or museums, and community centers are often willing to reserve space for group meetings.  Salons can meet weekly, monthly, and everything in between.

Step-by-step guide for facilitation

Before:

Paperwork. Review and sign the BPS Salon Operator’s Policy. You can request the policy by emailing us.

Recruiting participants. Find approximately 20-25 participants from your personal network (remember, every participant will not likely attend every salon). Ask friends and family to make introductions. BPS HQ may be able to assist you using social media or its database of online signups.

Finding a venue. Be creative in finding a venue that is convenient to salon participants. Restaurants, bars, lounges, schools, parks or museums, and community centers are often willing to reserve space for group meetings. Both facilitators and participants may host events in their homes but be cautious. Make sure you get to know the participants prior to inviting them to a personal residence.

Agenda. Salons should follow a consistent format. Typically, this includes a 30-45 minutes of socializing and 60-90 minutes of cross-partisan discussion. The first agenda should cover a broad topic. Posing the question, “What’s wrong with American politics?” is a good first topic.

Note-taking. Facilitators are responsible for taking detailed notes and drafting a salon summary. Plan ahead for this requirement. The facilitator can ask another participant to serve as a note-taker but, when possible, this should be arranged in advance.

What to bring. Bring pens and the BPS Salon Packet (a sign-in sheet, enough copies of the Pledge and questionnaire, and salon agenda).

During:

Arriving. Display the BPS sign-in sheet, Pledge, and questionnaire. Ask salon participants to sign in and take one copy of the pledge and questionnaire. You can request these by emailing us.

Social. Allow participants to spend time mingling and getting to know each other. Approximately 30-45 minutes is usually sufficient.

Participant Introductions. Begin the salon by introducing yourself and previewing the agenda.  Then, ask participants to introduce themselves. Everyone should say where they’re from, what they do, and why they joined BPS.

Introduce BPS and the salon. Explain BPS and its values and ground rules. Note the Chatham House Rules. Ask participants to sign and adhere to the BPS pledge. Collect the signed pledges. Inform participants that they should feel ownership in their salon. Ask participants to consider their own networks for recruitment or guest-speakers and for their help in note-taking and event-planning.

Conducting the salon. A facilitator’s primary mission is to foster cross-partisan trust and to ensure everyone has a positive experience. With that in mind, a facilitator asks questions, keeps the conversation moving, and ensures all participants have an opportunity to speak if they choose to.

Concluding. Ask participants for ideas on future topics, formats, and venues. Ask for feedback. Be sure you remind participants to answer the questionnaire and turn it in. This is critical.

After:

Take a smart-phone photo of notes, pledges, and questionnaires and send them in.

Draft and send out a salon summary to the participants. Remember to avoid referring to participants or their professional organizations in the summary. Give them 3 days to respond with edits. Once finalized, send in your summary. The best summaries will be published on the BPS blog (and attributed if so desired).

How to deal with challenges

Low or uneven attendance. Participants are busy, so facilitators need to make salon participation as simple and easy as possible. Make sure your venues are located in a convenient area. Follow-up emails with phone calls and text messages.

No one talking. Avoid this problem by ensuring sufficient time for socializing prior to the salon—especially if participants do not know each other. It is crucial that participants build trust and friendship. These are necessary for sincere political dialogue. If this happens during a salon, ask an open-ended question directly to a participant.

Someone dominating the conversation. Every group has those who tend to speak a lot and those who do not. This is natural. However, the facilitator needs to ensure no one dominates the conversation. Gently interrupt the participant and ask someone who hasn’t spoken to respond. If the behavior continues, remind the participant of the BPS Ground Rules, which include provisions on this.

Emotions rise. Pause the conversation. Acknowledge the stakes involved for those participants. Remind them of the BPS pledge. Take special note of the group’s reactions and what is or is not effective in overcoming the difficult moment. If the behavior continues, offer to take a break. If the participants will not let up, a facilitator may ask the participant(s) to leave. 

Preaching to the choir. Healthy and vigorous debate is the hallmark of a good salon. If participants all share the same political perspective, then they are preaching to the choir. Look for diversity of viewpoints in your salon. Even if participants all agree broadly on issues, enough exploration will reveal underlying disagreements.

Conclusion

A Burke-Paine Society facilitator's mission is to build community and trust. Perhaps surprisingly, you can do this through well-structured political interactions. Many Salon participants leave BPS events feeling energized about the future. Over time, BPS participants and facilitators will see tremendous personal improvement and self-growth. Their confidence and ability to interact with political content will grow. They will break out of their echo chambers and begin to challenge canned narratives and grotesque political hyperbole. 

BPS participants will rediscover the brilliance of that masterpiece of practical statecraft: the United States Constitution. In doing so, we will ignite a political renaissance.

Good luck!

Signed,

Mark B. Beall Jr,

Founder