I recently came across a post by Viv McWaters in which she advocates getting rid of tables in meetings or when facilitating group sessions. By and large I agree with all she says.
But I ran a lot of Knowledge Cafes at the end of last year when travelling, and on one or two occasions, I had no tables, not out of choice, but simply because there were no tables in the room or there was not enough room for tables.
Although I like the idea of "no tables" in a Knowledge Cafe, I have found in practice that I would rather have them
The more I run Cafes the more I realise the importance of close physically proximity when having a conversation.
My new rule is that if you can't reach out and touch the other people at the table then the table is too large or there are too many people.
A 3 ft round table with four people is perfect.
What I find in a Cafe with no tables is that groups tend to merge. So two groups of four tend to merge into one group of eight. People also move the chairs around. A small round table provides focus.
I ran one Cafe in Singapore for SAFTI (the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute) last year. Here we had no tables and all the chairs had wheels. What I loved about this was that when we came to change groups, the participants did not even stand up ... they just scooted the chairs around while remaining seated ... I wish I had captured it on video. Like many good things in Cafes, it just emerged.
In a banked lecture theatre recently, (the worst place to hold a Cafe) people tended to naturally form groups of six to eight - often so broadly spread that people on the fringes were never quite part of the conversation. I vowed never, ever to run a Cafe in such a setting again!
If I have a choice now between large tables and no tables at all then I tend to go for no tables.
Think about it, in all good conversations, you are within touching distance of the other people and although I am not advocating that you do touch ... often you do ... it makes the whole conversation that much more natural and human.