The Art of Gathering

Priya Parker

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Highly Recommend

On the surface, this book is about the best tactics for designing the best gatherings. However, as you apply more of her ideas, you realize she understand the fabric of sociology very well, just through a different lens. Very practical book that I've already gone back to a few times.

Notes

As much as our gatherings disappoint us, though, we tend to keep gathering in the same tired ways. Most of us remain on autopilot when we bring people together, following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting, conference, or party will somehow take care of itself, that thrilling results will magically emerge from the usual staid inputs. It is almost always a vain hope.

Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.

You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.

When you skip asking yourself what the purpose of your birthday party is in this specific year, for where you are at this present moment in your life, for example, you forsake an opportunity for your gathering to be a source of growth, support, guidance, and inspiration tailored to the time in which you and others find yourselves. You squander a chance for your gathering to help, and not just amuse, you and others.

I was becoming a mother. Anand was becoming a father. But we were also, as our doctor pointed out, transforming from a couple to a family. If I had been more thoughtful about it, I would have sought out a gathering that helped us make that weighty transition. But the structure and ritual of most baby showers—women-only, playing games, opening presents, making something crafty for the baby—were based on a different purpose.

When people come together without any thought to their purpose, they create gatherings about nothing. Yet many people sense this without being told, and they lay the foundation of a meaningful gathering by making the gathering about something. I want to challenge you to follow their example—but to go further and deeper.

Most purposes for gatherings feel worthy and respectable but are also basic and bland: “We’re hosting a welcome dinner so that our new colleague feels comfortable in our tight-knit group,” or “I’m throwing a birthday party to look back on the year.” These are purposes, but they fail at the test for a meaningful reason for coming together: Does it stick its neck out a little bit? Does it take a stand? Is it willing to unsettle some of the guests (or maybe the host)? Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?

Gatherings that are willing to be alienating—which is different from being alienating—have a better chance to dazzle.

Specificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself and the more passion it arouses.

Specificity sharpens the gathering because people can see themselves in it.

Uniqueness is another ingredient. How is this meeting or dinner or conference unique among the other meetings, dinners, and conferences you will host this year?

Ichi-go ichi-e. The master told me it roughly translates to “one meeting, one moment in your life that will never happen again.” She explained further: “We could meet again, but you have to praise this moment because in one year, we’ll have a new experience, and we will be different people and will be bringing new experiences with us, because we are also changed.”

Before you gather, ask yourself: Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings? Why is it different from other people’s gatherings of the same general type? What is this that other gatherings aren’t?

A good gathering purpose should also be disputable.

If you commit to a purpose of your wedding as a ceremonial repayment of your parents for all they have done for you as you set off to build your own family, that is disputable, and it will immediately help you make choices. That one remaining seat will go to your parents’ long-lost friend, not your estranged college buddy. If, on the other hand, you commit to the equally valid purpose of a wedding as a melding of a new couple with the tribe of people with whom they feel the most open, that, too, is disputable, and it implies clear and different answers. The parents’ friend may have to stand down for the college buddy.

Zoom out: If she doesn’t zoom out, a chemistry teacher might tell herself that her purpose is to teach chemistry. While teaching is a noble undertaking, this definition does not give her much guidance on how to actually design her classroom experience. If, instead, she decides that her purpose is to give the young a lifelong relationship to the organic world, new possibilities emerge.

Drill, baby, drill: Take the reasons you think you are gathering—because it’s our departmental Monday-morning meeting; because it’s a family tradition to barbecue at the lake—and keep drilling below them.

Reverse engineer an outcome: Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome.

Stewart and Tsao’s big idea is that every meeting should be organized around a “desired outcome.” When a meeting is not designed in that way, they found, it ends up being defined by process. For example, a meeting to discuss the quarter’s results is a meeting organized around process.

When there really is no purpose: If you go through these steps and find that you still cannot figure out any real purpose for your get-together, then you probably shouldn’t be planning the kind of meaningful gathering that I am exploring here. Do a simple, casual hangout.

She decided what she wanted from the dinner—and from the dinners for which it might set a precedent—was novelty and freshness. She decided to put aside the demi-purposes of bringing her husband new business and reciprocating with her friends, and to zero in on connecting meaningfully with new people.

But modesty can also derive from the idea that people don’t want to be imposed on. This hesitancy, which permeates many gatherings, doesn’t consider that you may be doing your guests a favor by having a focus.

She knew she wanted to have a single conversation among the group. And in keeping with the idea of new blood, she wanted a question that would reveal something about each person and connect the guests to one another. She and her husband, both immigrants, decided to ask the table about their conception of “home.”

Having a purpose simply means knowing why you’re gathering and doing your participants the honor of being convened for a reason. And once you have that purpose in mind, you will suddenly find it easier to make all the decisions that a gathering requires.

You will have begun to gather with purpose when you learn to exclude with purpose. When you learn to close doors.

Sometimes we over-include because we feel a need to repay an old debt of hosting, as S. did. Sometimes we over-include because we’re sustaining a custom in which we don’t really believe: “I couldn’t not invite the marketing team. That would be a huge slap in the face. They always come.” Sometimes we over-include because we don’t want to deal with the consequences of excluding certain people, especially those gifted at making a stink.

One day, one of the members helped us figure out what was bothering us when she said, “This is not a class.” What it wasn’t helped us to see what it was. The undiscussed but shared understanding of our gathering was to spend time as friends while exercising. It was a hangout that used the convening mechanism of exercise, not an exercise class that happened to be attended by friends. We were a group of people with busy lives who wanted to find a regular, reliable way of reconnecting with specific other people we had chosen. [I need more of this!]

Barack Obama’s aunt once told him, “If everyone is family, no one is family.” It is blood that makes a tribe, a border that makes a nation. The same is true of gatherings. So here is a corollary to his aunt’s saying: If everyone is invited, no one is invited—in the sense of being truly held by the group. By closing the door, you create the room.

If you want a lively but inclusive conversation as a core part of your gathering, eight to twelve people is the number you should consider. Smaller than eight, the group can lack diversity in perspective; larger than twelve, it begins to be difficult to give everyone a chance to speak.

Venues come with scripts. We tend to follow rigid if unwritten scripts that we associate with specific locations. We tend to behave formally in courtrooms, boardrooms, and palaces. We bring out different sides of ourselves at the beach, the park, the nightclub.

A dinner party is not supposed to take place in an ocean. Which is why Fermor went there. And which is why you should think about where your next gathering ought not take place, and hold it there.

Studies show that simply switching rooms for different parts of an evening’s experience will help people remember different moments better.

But for some reason, I kept looking over my shoulder all night, waiting for the party to begin. It felt like the room was still empty even after all the guests had arrived. You had to physically walk over to another part of the room to meet new people because everyone was standing so far apart. I spent most of the night hanging out with a small group of friends I already knew and didn’t take any social risks. Even when the band came on, people congregated but hung back and didn’t dance. What went wrong? The space was too big.

“CHILL” IS SELFISHNESS DISGUISED AS KINDNESS

Many people who go to the serious trouble of hosting aspire to host as minimally as possible.

Many hosts I work with seem to imagine that by refusing to exert any power in their gathering, they create a power-free gathering. What they fail to realize is that this pulling-back, far from purging a gathering of power, creates a vacuum that others can fill.

Does your agenda-free meeting help the young analyst? Or does her chance of adding something useful to a discussion among seasoned experts depend on her being able to prepare in advance? Does your talk-to-whomever-you-want approach help the quiet guest speak at all if not given a protected turn? Does open seating at a teachers conference help the three newcomers who end up sitting clumped together at the end of the table every time?

So Stewart introduced a rule in all Hub LA membership orientations: Members could only talk about what they “sold” if someone asked for help or asked about what they did. She was protecting her guests from being seen only as potential customers or investors and protecting the gathering from becoming crass. [Host can provide excuse for breaking down social norms]

Hosting is not democratic, just like design isn’t. Structure helps good parties, like restrictions help good design.

There was a destination birthday party in New Orleans, whose invitation came with its own rather charming set of rules: “Limit your time in bed,” “Don’t stray from the herd, be a strong follower,” “Take tremendous photos but post nothing,” “Commit to a conversation with a local,” “Make up more rules as we go,” and “Don’t miss the flight home.”

No one forces you to practice it. You just may not get invited back if you mess it up.

The rise of pop-up rules can be better understood against this backdrop. It is no accident that rules-based gatherings are emerging as modern life does away with monocultures and closed circles of the similar. Pop-up rules are perhaps the new etiquette, more suited to modern realities.

Rules can create an imaginary, transient world that is actually more playful than your everyday gathering. That is because everyone realizes that the rules are temporary and is, therefore, willing to obey them.

Etiquette allows people to gather because they are the same. Pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different—yet open to having the same experience.

Shane Harris, a political reporter who wrote about the Dîner en Blanc in Washington, D.C., made a similar observation. Harris touted the event as being “snobbery-free”—a rarity in a self-important city known for “its rigid social calendar and order.”

When the social code is spelled out, when it is turned into a one-night-only game, you don’t have to know certain unsaid things, you don’t have to have been raised in a certain way, you don’t have to be steeped in a certain culture, you don’t have to have parsed decades’ worth of social cues. You just need to be told tonight’s rules. This is the bargain that the rules-based gatherer offers: if you accept a greater rigidity in the setup of the event, the gatherer will offer you a different and much richer freedom—to gather with people of all kinds, in spite of your own gathering traditions.

Among these rules, it became clear that the two most important ones were spending a full day together and no technology. And they were powerful because they forced a degree of presence rare in New York and the tech-addled modern world.

We discovered from these experiments that spending twelve hours together as a group is fundamentally different from spending four hours together on three separate occasions.

Laprise understood what many of us miss: Asking guests to contribute to a gathering ahead of time changes their perception of it. Many of us have no trouble asking guests to bring a bottle of wine or a side dish, but rarely do we consider what else we might demand of them in advance. Rarely do we follow Laprise’s example of asking guests to perform a task that isn’t really a task so much as an attempt to get them in the mood.

For a gathering on the future of education at a university, I asked questions like “What is one moment or experience you had before the age of twenty that fundamentally impacted the way you look at the world?” and “What are the institutions in the United States and abroad that are taking a bold, effective approach to educating the next generation of global problem solvers? What can we learn from them?” For a gathering on rethinking a national poverty program, I asked questions like “What is your earliest memory of facing or coming into contact with poverty?” and “How are our core principles the same or different from when we started fifty years ago?” For a gathering of a technology company’s executive team after a merger, I asked questions like “Why did you join this company?” and “What are the most pressing questions you think this team needs to address?”

If you’re hosting a half-day gathering for your team to discuss a new strategy, do you call it a “meeting,” a “workshop,” a “brainstorming session,” or an “idea lab”? Of these names, “brainstorming session” implies a heavier level of participation than perhaps “meeting” does.

In a show at the Park Avenue Armory, a massive performance space in New York City, sitting silently, the audience watched the pianist Igor Levit and his piano slide on a platform into the center of the stage. After thirty minutes, a gong sounded, signaling that the audience could remove their headphones. Only then did Levit play the opening note.

However vital it may seem to start with this housekeeping, you are missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your guests. And sometimes you are actually undermining that purpose by revealing to your guests that you do not, in fact, care about the things you claim to care about as much as you profess.

If someone asks Perel a question about cheating or divorce or boredom, before answering it, she’ll look out at the audience and ask, “How many of you can relate to this question?” Or, “Who also wonders about this?” In that simple act, she transforms a one-to-many speech into a collective experience.

Strangers, unconnected to our pasts and, in most cases, to our futures, are easier to experiment around. They create a temporary freedom to pilot-test what we might become, however untethered that identity is to what we have been.

Sometimes, the elevation of harmony over everything else merely makes a gathering dull. Often, though, it is worse than that: The goal of harmony burrows its way into the core of the gathering and becomes a kind of pretender purpose, hampering the very thing the gathering was supposed to be about.

Good controversy is the kind of contention that helps people look more closely at what they care about, when there is danger but also real benefit in doing so.

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