The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Big Idea: 

Design choices that place people and purpose at center of gatherings make them transformative.

Context:

Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Priya Parker is a professional facilitator. She helps activists, politicians, businessmen, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She has worked on race relations on American colleges and on peace processes in the Arab world. She studied organizational design at MIT and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

My Personal Story:

I have a theory: you can know more about someone from 5 minutes on a basketball court than 5 months in an office. Whether it’s basketball or board games, shared, non-work activities show people’s true colors. This book helped me understand the fundamentals of transformative gatherings. 

Exercise 1

Commit to a gathering about something. Don’t conflate category with purpose. For example, don’t celebrate turning 40. Instead ask yourself the purpose of your birthday party this specific year. 

“Gatherings that please everyone occur, but they rarely thrill. Gatherings that are willing to be alienating— which is different from being alienating— have a better chance to dazzle. How do you arrive at a something worth gathering about? What are the ingredients for a sharp, bold, meaningful gathering purpose? 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.”

For your next gathering, make purpose your bouncer. Let it decide what goes into your gathering and what stays out. Specifically, pay special attention to who you invite and who you don’t. Yes, this means excluding people – even good friends or important people – if their presence distracts from the gathering’s purpose.

Exercise 2

Rules-based gatherings bring freedom and openness to gatherings. Use rules to create a temporary alternative world.

“There is a certain kind of fun in trying something for a bounded moment. The kind of restriction that might feel oppressive if permanent can seem compelling and intriguing when it applies sometimes, as part of a conscious effort to create that temporary alternative world.”

For example:

The Influencer Salon gathers 12 strangers every month to cook and eat together. The invitation contained these rules:

  • Conversation: we ask that guests do not discuss their careers or give their last names until after the presentation portion of the evening
  • Photography: photos are only allowed during the presentation portion
  • Attendance: People who confirm and do not attend are unlikely to be invited again

Some other rules I liked while reading this book:

  • You are not allowed to buy your own drink
  • One conversation at meals
  • Turn off technology
  • No talking about kids
  • Wear white, including socks, shoes and headpieces
  • If you’re going, be there from start to finish
  • If you don’t respond to the RSVP you won’t be invited again
  • Share challenging moments that seldom come up in ordinary conversations

Implement at least 1 rule that enforces the gathering’s purpose.

Exercise 3

Like all good stories, memorable gatherings start and end with a bang.

Start your gathering off by priming, ushering and launching.

Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it, not at the actual event. Take advantage of this pre-game window to sow any special behaviors you want to blossom at the event. 

“Every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up… priming can be as simple as a slightly interesting invitation, as straightforward as asking your guests to do something instead of bring something… it could be the way you name your gathering.”

Then help usher your guests across the threshold of your gathering. How can you great a physical or psychological passageway that tunes out the prior reality and captures people’s attention and imagination? This could be a door, passage, trip, or even greeting guests as they arrive.

Then launch the event by awe-ing guests and honoring them.

“The opening is, therefore, an important opportunity to establish the legitimacy of your gathering… your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

Endings should mirror your openings. When you feel energy waning or conversations dying, announce a last call to signal the outbound ushering process.

“So you’ve issued your last call, people have been primed to think about the end, and the event is winding down. How do you actually close? A strong closing has two phases, corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward. Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired— and to bond as a group one last time. Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world.”

For example, the organizers of TED ask a comedian to close a days-long conference with a 15 minute wrap.

You can also reaffirm not just what the group did but who they were during the gathering.

Then connect the world of the gathering to the world outside. That could be a verbal or written pledge, a physical symbol, a letter written to their future self, a gift to turn an impermanent moment into a permanent memory.

Think through how your gathering’s opening and ending. For the opening focus on 1 action you’ll take to prime, usher, and launch the gathering. For the ending, make sure to have a last call, and  closing session that looks inwards and turns outwards before re-entry into the real world. DO NOT start or end your gathering with logistics. 

Quote:

“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.”

“Before every gathering she creates, she asks herself two questions: What is the gift? And what is the risk? She thinks of each of her gatherings as fulfilling a specific need for a specific group of people. But for that gift to be given, she has learned, there needs to be some amount of risk. ‘No true gift is free of risk,’ Benedetto told me. She defines risk as ‘a threat to one’s current state that could destabilize the way things are.’ The risk is what allows for the possibility of the gift.”

Dope Footnotes

Priya believes in a certain magic of numbers and density in creating transformative gatherings. I will refer to these often! From her book:

Numbers of people

In my experience, there are certain magic numbers in groups. Every facilitator has his or her own list, and these are obviously approximations, but here are mine: 6, 12 to 15, 30, and 150.

Groups of 6: Groups of this rough size are wonderfully conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling.

Groups of 12 to 15: The next interesting number is around 12. Twelve is small enough to build trust and intimacy, and small enough for a single moderator, if there is one, formal or informal, to handle. (When multiple facilitators are required at a large meeting, it is customary to divide the number of participants by 12 to figure out how many facilitators are needed.) At the same time, 12 is large enough to offer a diversity of opinion and large enough that it allows for a certain quotient of mystery and intrigue, of constructive unfamiliarity. 

Groups of 30: Thirty starts to feel like a party, whether or not your gathering is one. If smaller gatherings scale greater heights of intimacy, the group of 30 or so has its own distinctive quality: that buzz, that crackle of energy, that sense of possibility that attaches to parties.

Groups of 150: The next interesting number lies somewhere between 100 and 200. When I speak to conference organizers who think about group dynamics, the ideal range I hear again and again is somewhere between 100 and 150 people. While they disagree on the precise number, they all agree that it’s the tier at which, as one organizer told me, “intimacy and trust is still palpable at the level of the whole group, and before it becomes an audience.”

Tides of humanity: Well beyond these gathering sizes is the sea of humanity. Think Bonnaroo, the World Cup, Tahrir Square, the Million Man March, the hajj in Mecca, the Olympics. These are gatherings where the goal is not so much intimacy or connection as tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd.

Density: 

Billy Mac, an event planner, swears by the following parameters for the number of square feet required per guest for different vibes: 

  • Square Feet Per Guest   |   Sophisticated   |   Lively   |   Hot 
  • Dinner party   |   20 sq. ft.   |   15 sq. ft.   |   N/ A 
  • Cocktail party   |   12 sq. ft.   |   10 sq. ft.   |   8 sq. ft. 
  • Into the night/ dance party   |   8 sq. ft.   |    6 sq. ft.   |   5 sq. ft. 

He suggests dividing the “square feet of your party space by the number to get your target number of guests.” If your entertaining space is 400 square feet and you want a sophisticated dinner party, invite 20 people. If, instead, you want a “hot” dance party, invite 80 for that same space. Mac says one of the reasons party guests often end up gravitating to the kitchen is that people instinctively seek out smaller spaces as the group dwindles in order to sustain the level of the density.

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