This review first ran in the March 23 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
By Priya Parker
We’re gathered here today for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
We’re in the dark because our host organized the event on autopilot, leaning hard on convention.
So while it’s neither meaningful or memorable, at least the event’s a familiar routine. And if we’re lucky, it’ll start on time and end ahead of schedule so we can get an early jump on heading home or back to work.
We shouldn’t be settling for just an efficient and uneventful event. Priya Parker shows what we’re missing and what we should aspire to whenever we bring people together, whether it’s an all-staff retreat, town hall, workshop, conference, fundraising dinner or awards night.
“The way we gather matters,” says Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and founder of Thrive Lab with a background in organizational design. “Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world.
“Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. And we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.”
The solution for fixing forgettable events starts by deciding why we want to bring people together, what we hope to achieve, who should be there, when it should happen and where. The bolder and sharper our purpose for an event, the better.
“When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative.”
So aim for specificity and uniqueness. Disputable is the other hallmark of a great event. A disputable purpose is a filter that forces you to make hard choices and decisions rather than compromises.
Think of purpose as the bouncer who decides what’s in and what’s out with your event. If you can’t find a purpose, don’t bring people together. Give them the gift of time instead.
If your event’s a go with a clear purpose, don’t be a chill host. “Chill is selfishness disguised as kindness,” says Parker. “Chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings.”
Resist the urge to be noninvasive, relaxed and low-key. When you leave your guests alone, you leave them alone to one another to recreate The Lord of the Flies in a conference room or banquet hall. They’ll be confused, anxious and at the mercy of someone who’ll fill the void in a way that could prove inconsistent with your event’s purpose or your values. What your guests wind up with may not be what they signed on for.
“If you are going to gather, gather. If you are going to host, host. If you are going to create a kingdom for an hour or day, rule it – and rule it with generosity.”
Generous authority means protecting, equalizing and connecting your guests. “One measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-guest connections than guest-guest connections and ends with those tallies reversed, far in the guest-guest favour.”
Parker also advocates creating a custom constitution and pop-up rules for your event. “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.”
And work hard on having a stellar opening and close to your event. Avoid the mundane housekeeping chores and sponsor shout-outs that mark the start of far too many gatherings. We can figure out where the bathrooms are and we know to tell our server about any dietary restrictions. “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.”
The same holds true for the end of your event. Remind your audience what they experienced together and what they can take with them back into their jobs, families and community. “Too many of our gatherings don’t end. They simply stop. A strong closing has two phases corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward.”
Everyone who plans, organizes and scripts events should read Parker’s guidebook. Along with practical advice are examples of meaningful and memorable events that foster a genuine sense of belonging. Wow us at your next event and we’ll happily sign on for more.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.