This post is the first in a series of monthly notes in which I’ll share top takeaways from some of my favorite books related to the work of community building, public engagement, and communications.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
Before digging into to the tips gleaned from this month’s selection… an important question: have you entered this month’s book giveaway for a chance to receive a free copy? If not, be sure to check out last week’s announcement!
I picked up my copy of The Art of Gathering at an airport newsstand while waiting on an early morning flight last July. While the trip was just a quick visit to Kauai to conduct a couple interviews for a client, I’d gotten half way through the book by the time the return flight touched down in Honolulu that night. This book immediately asserted its place as one of my top reads in 2018. Its premise is quite simple: At a time when coming together is more important than ever, most of the meetings, events, and other gatherings we attend are lackluster and disappointing–but they don’t have to be. We can do much better.
Here are eight takeaway’s summarizing a few of the key themes presented by Parker:
1. Clarify the PURPOSE of your gathering
While this may seem obvious, too often we confuse what will happen at an event–what we will do—with its purpose. When this happens, we miss an important opportunity to shape the activities and structure of an event to ensure that our highest aspirations and goals for the gathering are manifested. We start with logistics (the ‘what’) instead of our intended outcome (our ‘why’). Instead, we should establish a specific, unique, and disputable purpose—a desired outcome that will inform the event design and organization.
2. Be disciplined with your guest list
“Inviting people is easy. Excluding people can be hard…but the thoughtful gatherer understands that inclusion can in fact be uncharitable, and exclusion generous.” Our guest list can provide important signals about a gathering’s purpose. A few questions that can be helpful in this regard include: Who is this gathering for first? Who not only fits but also helps fulfill the gathering’s purpose? Who threatens the purpose? Who, despite being irrelevant to the purpose, do you feel obliged to invite? An important note is that ‘generous’ exclusion should not result in homogeneity, but can create heightened and strategic diversity.
3. Carefully consider group size
The size of a gathering can influence what’s possible when we bring people together. Certain group sizes just feel ‘right’ and have a sort of magic to them. Parker shares her preferred approximations as:
- Groups of 6: conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling; can limit diversity of viewpoints and leaves no room for ‘dead weight’
- Groups of 12 to 15: still small enough to build trust and intimacy, yet large enough to offer diversity of opinion and constructive unfamiliarity; typically the upper limit to fit around a single table or to be managed by one facilitator
- Groups of 30: can start to feel like a party—has the potential to generate more buzz, energy, and sense of possibility; generally too big for a single conversation
- Groups of 150: with intention and effort, everyone can still see and meet each other; within the range of what anthropologists regard as the natural size of a tribe; the number of stable friendships humans can maintain (‘Dunbar’s number’)
- Tides of humanity: think World Cup, Million Man March, Tahrir Square—rather than intimacy, the goal is tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd
4. Understand that venues come with scripts
People are influenced by their environment. Think about the behaviors we most want to elicit and those we hope to minimize or avoid. How can the characteristics of our venue serve as levers in this regard? Will dramatic views and interesting spaces spur creativity, or lead to distraction? Are we seeking opportunities for bonding, comfort, introspection, or movement? Taking this even further—when a place embodies an idea, it brings a person’s body and whole being into the experience, not only their minds. A space can either reinforce habits and ways of doing, or break us out of our routines.
5. Embody your role (+ responsibilities) as host
Many of us aspire to host as minimally as possible. Parker, however, argues that this “chill” approach is merely selfishness disguised as kindness. Abdicating our role as host creates a vacuum that others can (and will) fill—and odds are that they will do so in a manner inconsistent with our gathering’s purpose. A gathering without a host to guide it is akin to a meeting without an agenda. Stepping into this role also empowers us to protect, equalize, and connect our guests in ways that align with our desired event outcomes.
6. Employ RULES strategically
Parker gives careful attention to the distinction between social etiquette and ‘pop-up’ rules imposed on a specific gathering. In a world where we increasingly experience clashes of etiquette—between cultures, generations, social traditions, and place-based norms—pop-up rules can reduce friction that arises from differences across diverse groups. The idea of imposing rules may make you squirm in your seat, however, doing so can eliminate the need for guests to be fluent in social cues and can put everyone on more equal social footing. While there are endless ways to think about and frame rules, a few wide ranging examples include: first names only—saving last names, profession, etc. for the end; turning off phones and cameras; if you’d like something to drink, someone else must pour it for you; (after meeting breaks) if you’re late, you can come in but first you have to do ten push-ups; (at a conference) if you find yourself in any situation in which you are neither learning or contributing, use your two feet and go someplace else.
7. Maximize your pregame window
Our guests begin to form their expectations and anticipate the event from the moment they are made aware of it. Our role as host begins at that moment of discovery. The window between discovery and arrival at the event presents an opportunity to prime participants—it’s a chance to shape their journey into our gathering. The less priming we do during this pregame window, the more work awaits us during the gathering itself. Too often, we limit our pregame attention to logistics, and we squander the opportunity to initiate our guests and shape how they show up.
8. Design a discrete + purposeful closing
A designated end time, alone, is not a closing. A strong closing has two phases: looking inward and turning outward. The first phase is about meaning-making and connecting one last time. Often, this takes the form of a collective exercise of stock-taking—creating space to reflect on what has transpired and why it matters. But it’s also important to find a way to bond the group one last time; to affirm not only what we achieved as a group, but who we became and how we connected. The second phase is about separation and reentry and can be defined by the question: “What of this world do I want to bring back to my other worlds?” In other words, if we’ve been successful in bonding a group and creating a temporary alternative world in which they came together in the spirit of the gathering’s purpose, how can we now help those who have gathered ‘take the set down’ and transition back into their day-to-day lives? Parker suggests that helping them answer these questions can be helpful: We’ve collectively experienced something here together, so how do we want to behave outside of this context? If we see people again, what are our agreements about what and how we’ll talk about what occurred here? What of this experience do I want to bring with me?
These eight takeaways omit many additional practices, and breeze over the underlying philosophies that Parker weaves together in her book. In fact, some of my favorite parts of The Art of Gathering are the anecdotes she generously sprinkles throughout each chapter to bring each suggested strategy to life. If this limited reflection has piqued your interest, I heartily recommend picking up a copy and revisiting this post to share your favorite takeaways!