“The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters”

October 1, 2021

By Priya Parker

People come together for all kinds of reasons — to solve problems, to celebrate, to mark transitions, to build things, to tell stories, to mourn — and because gathering is such a fact of life, we tend not to think very much about why we do it and whether our gathering habits are working as well as they could be.

Of course, the pandemic has thrown all our expectations about gatherings out the window. First we spent time in total isolation. Then we embraced remote versions of the parties and meetings we knew so well. And, little by little, we’ve come back to in-person gatherings again. While in some cases it may feel great to return to the familiar routine of events, most people are experiencing some level of dread about time-wasting meetings, boring conferences and painful dinner parties. Let’s face it — a lot of the ways we gathered weren’t working very well before, and the pandemic has made it impossible to ignore that fact.

So how can you ensure that events you plan, whether professional, personal or a mix of both, become meaningful experiences for the people who participate in them? Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering” provides a framework:

  1. Decide the real reason you are gathering. “When we gather, we often make the mistake of conflating category with purpose.” Yes, a networking event is gathered to help people … network. But the deeper purpose behind it may be to help people find business partners or to help them find clients, to help them meet people across fields or to help them connect with more people from their own industry. The specific purpose should drive how the event is organized, but first we need to identify what it is.
  2. Close doors. Once you have identified the true purpose of your gathering, you must think about who should be there — and who shouldn’t. Participants who will embrace the purpose and have something to contribute to achieving it should be on the list. But anyone who doesn’t have a relevant connection to the purpose, or whom you suspect might actively work to derail that purpose, should not. Many gatherings are less useful than they could be because people are included out of obligation or politeness. While this saves offending the person you might exclude, the other participants will pay a price as the event becomes too watered down. Likewise, you must choose a venue that supports your event’s purpose.
  3. Take your duties as host seriously. Many people who organize gatherings prefer not to think too much about the power they hold because it feels pushy or presuming — hosts would rather be “chill.” But, as Parker says, “Who wants to sail on a rudderless ship?” Instead, hosts, whether of a work meeting or a dinner party, must embrace their role as leaders and authorities to carefully plan for the gathering, implement a thoughtful agenda that is in line with the event’s purpose, step in when an obnoxious participant threatens to derail it and democratize the activities so that everyone gets to participate.
  4. Create a “temporary alternative world” within the event. How can you make your event feel different from everyday life? Create a set of “rules” for your gathering that will set the tone for how participants interact. You might prohibit the use of phones, or provide instructions on one piece of information guests should share when they meet, or one thing everyone is barred from talking about (work?). The existence of these rules create a temporary and experimental world in which interesting and unexpected things can happen.
  5. Prime participants for the event. A gathering actually begins when guests first receive the invitation to come, and 90% of what makes an event a success happens before you gather. Say you want to bring together some key thought leaders in an industry your firm serves for a roundtable discussion on business post Covid. How you choose those thought leaders, how you describe the gathering to them, how you facilitate communication between their teams before the event, what kinds of preparatory questions/guidelines you provide them — all these things will determine how well the conversation goes on the day of. The more you are asking of your participants, the more thought and care needs to go into the “pregame” work of the gathering.
  6. Take steps to create meaningful interaction. Once the event begins, it’s the host’s job to keep the “puffed-up phoniness” and painful boredom out of the room. Parker suggests several activities you can lead to spur authentic engagement. The ones you choose of course depend on the type of event, but here are some possibilities: Ask everyone at a small gathering to share a story of a moment from their life that changed the way they viewed the world. Ask a handful of participants to give an impromptu toast on a topic close to the event’s purpose. Or to “tell us something that would surprise us,” and encourage them to leave their professional accomplishments out of it. Asking participants to be a bit more vulnerable can feel like a risk, but it can also pay off in increasing the level of connection and meaning. Of course, anything the host asks his guests to do, he has to be willing to do himself.
  7. “Cause good controversy.” If you’re feeling even more daring, think about how to stoke controversy. Instead of avoiding big differences of opinion that may exist in your group (the way we all were taught as children never to talk about sex, politics and religion), you may want to lean in to passionately held views and take the risk of bringing them to the surface. Harmony, especially when it’s not authentic, can be dull. And for groups (whether families or professional teams) to grow, they sometimes need to get real. If your firm is hosting a town hall, make it safe for people to give honest feedback on a new policy, and to disagree with the party line on where the organization is headed. Help everyone keep their sense of humor, of course, but focus on embracing conflict and generating new ideas rather than preserving the status quo. (Lawyers, professional arguers, are excellent candidates for this!)
  8. End on a high note. Many hosts let an event dwindle or end on its own. Whatever the reason for this (Parker makes a convincing argument that it is our culture’s fear and avoidance of death!), “closing without closing” misses an opportunity to cement the meaning you worked so hard to create. To make the closing intentional, a host should notice when an event is waning and issue a “last call.” Suggest a nightcap as a signal, or close with another round of brief toasts or one new takeaway from the day. This tells the guests that it’s appropriate to prepare to leave and encourages them to connect with the person they may have been putting off all evening. Just don’t wait too long to announce the closing. Queen Elizabeth’s party planner says she ends a party when there are just twenty people left on the dance floor. “If you let it peter out,” she once told the New York Times, “it’s death.”