My mother-in-law knows how to set a table. She’s a connector, a people person, a well of bubbling, intentional hospitality. She’s also a planner. Days in advance I can tell that company is coming, or a special dinner is in the cards, because her table will start to come together. A special set of dishes will appear from a box in the attic. She’ll play with table cloths and runners, improvise with some fabric from Nairobi. She’ll add something beautiful in the center, cross-reference a magazine article, get it just right. I didn’t know what a charger was before I met this woman. She knows how to set a table.

These days conversation around tables can feel perilous. Political divides, generational breaches, even rifts within the church can cause any conversation to feel like a battle ground. Often, social media gives us the luxury of knowing how our family and friends lean on a myriad of topics before we even ask, so we can enter a conversation with defenses up, arguments prepared, or an escape plan in place without hearing a word from their mouths.

I can talk all day with people who agree with me, wax eloquent about the opposing view’s blind side, but I’m starting to wonder if we are loosing access to the skills that allow us to listen and understand those who don’t share our beliefs, our convictions, and our preferences. 

What would happen if we set the table for the hard conversations? What if we prepared a space for dialogue the way my mother in law prepares a table? What would it look like to put time and effort into preparing our hearts to hear those we don’t understand, and don’t agree with? Can we make our hearts soft and remember how to listen, how to let conversation unfurl? Can we make space for empathy?

Table setting

The Oxford Dictionary describes empathy as The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

I think about the tables where Jesus sat: the tables of tax collectors and outcasts, the lakeside campfires of fishermen turned disciples, the well where he asked a Samaritan woman for water. I think about how he understood them better than they could ever understand themselves. I think about how Jesus came down and walked among us, how the Word became flesh, empathy personified.

Making Room

What if our tables became places where we dined with the tax collectors and the Pharisees and the Samarian woman? What if we sat at their tables, drank from their well, like Jesus did? Can we make space for listening and learning and loving, even when we do not agree? Can we begin to build relationships that can hold the weight of difficult conversations? Can our tables be filled with those we love, as well as those whose voices we desperately need to hear? I think we can.

Let’s set the table for the hard conversations: dust off our listening and our empathy, make a place for real dialogue in real life.

Today, I’ll set the table, breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not nearly as lovely as my mother in law’s). I will pull forks from the silverware drawer and fill jelly jar glasses of water. I will look around at the places I’ve set, at the work I have left to do. 

I’d love to hear from you: how do you make space for dialogue and keep your heart soft in hard conversations?

*Table setting by Dani Lynne Vintage Rentals. Image Credit: Kris Camealy
Annie Barnett / Posts / Blog
Annie Barnett is an artist and child at heart who loves discovering beauty in ordinary places. When she's not making art, Annie can be found mothering three wildly fun little girls alongside her husband Ted; or perhaps writing; or experimenting with blueberries and goat cheese in the kitchen, preferably with friends gathered around. She writes sporadically at and shares her art at
  • Sarah

    What a wonderful message, Annie. Thank you for challenging us to set a better table. And I don’t mean in the physical sense. 😉

    January 23rd, 2017 8:10
    • Dianne Stavropoulos

      I have been thinking lately of what having a soft heart in our culture would look like. What you’ve written adds a new dimension. Thank you!

      January 23rd, 2017 10:31
      • Annie Barnett

        Sarah and Dianne, thanks for reading. Right there with you, figuring it out as I go.

        January 23rd, 2017 10:46
  • Mimi

    Once a friend of mine described a powerful Spirit empowered instruction from Scripture with these words…”it was like being invited to a beautifully set table and served the most delicious and satisfying food I have ever tasted…a banquet of truth.” Annie, you have just done that with your metaphor and message!

    January 23rd, 2017 10:49
    • Annie Barnett

      So grateful for you, your beautiful tablescapes, and your words here!

      January 23rd, 2017 15:25
  • Mel

    YAAAASSSSS FRIEND!!! I LOVE THIS and I LOVE YOU!! Such a good word for the days we find ourselves in. 🙂

    January 23rd, 2017 12:59
    • Annie Barnett

      Thanks, Mel! Love you, too!

      January 23rd, 2017 15:25
  • Jody Collins
    Jody Collins

    Annie, I have a friend who IS an artist and eating at her table is like sitting in the middle of a painting–except the food is real!
    How do I make space for hard conversations? I went to lunch with a very dear friend recently who does not share my ardent love for Jesus nor many of my biblical leanings. At our pastor’s urging on how to be humble, I just ask a lot of questions and then listen.
    She has always done the same for me for which I am eternally grateful.
    We all just want to be heard.
    Well said.

    January 23rd, 2017 13:30
    • Annie Barnett

      I love that. Listening doesn’t come easy to me, but I’m learning.

      January 23rd, 2017 15:25
  • Jennie

    Love this and yes…Can we make space for listening and learning and loving, even when we do not agree?

    January 23rd, 2017 16:52
  • Leah Slawson

    I love setting the table as metaphor for preparing for connecting with others even when it is difficult. Beautiful piece:)

    January 23rd, 2017 21:55
    • Annie Barnett

      Thanks, Leah. So glad you’re here.

      January 24th, 2017 0:16
  • Leah Adams

    I love this post so much!!! Over the years I have tried to draw into my table people from all walks of life…many of them college students, which brings lots of new perspectives to the table. In the past year, though, I have not been as intentional about it, but one of my goals for 2017 is to re-instate the Sunday lunch. As a child, my parents would invite friends in to lunch after church. It was a time of relationship building and fellowship, and it is not done very often now. But, I’m determined to change that. Those whom I invite in will likely bring different perspectives and I pray it will be a sweet time.

    I wish I had your mother-in-law’s talent for tables. I can put food on the table that will wow the guests, but when it comes to decor, I’m a bust. I need someone to help me with that, and I know that someone should be Pinterest, probably, but it just never happens. Maybe that needs to be another 2017 goal!!

    January 24th, 2017 3:55
  • Lisa Metcalfe

    Dear Annie and”sisterhood”at GraceTable,
    Thank you for this very timely and relevant blog! I was raised with the example of a well-set table. Our fare was ethnically diverse, and my mom loved an attractive presentation created using dishes and decor accents from around the world that my pilot father would gather from his travels. For this I am grateful. It was usually “just us 4 and no more” however, and it’s been my/my husband’s desire to have more of an open table policy in our home. Your ministry is fanning that flame, and helping me to keep a right perspective when it takes sacrifice! Godspeed😊

    January 24th, 2017 7:27
  • Chudney

    Wonderful post Annie! And so timely. We must bring these values back to basics; listening to one another, empathizing, there’s so much more to talk about than politics. Breaking away in simple conversation to talk, and most importantly listening to one another.

    January 24th, 2017 10:01
  • Briana

    What a needed encouragement these days.
    As I read, I was reminded afresh what a grace it’s been to me personally to gather people in my home, people of all persuasions and belief systems. We have been in a season of not being free to do that, mostly due to illness upon illness, and I saw how much I miss it after reading this piece. Praying we can get back to it soon!!

    A few of the ways I’ve pursued this is by attending and occasionally hosting a bunco night w my neighbors. We do it once a month, have so much fun but also some surprisingly deep conversations given the context.
    I also have been hosting what I call read aloud hour for the preschoolers in my neighborhood once a month. The focus is mostly on the kids, but it has allowed me a context for further building relationships with the entire family of those in my community.
    Lastly, I’ve held what I call “Gather” for the women in my neighborhood once a month. It’s a night where I provide simple food, drinks and conversations centered around faith and family. It’s led to some cherished times together where varying perspectives are shared.

    January 28th, 2017 10:49

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