Notes on The Art of Gathering

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

Last week I attended a virtual conference. An impressive event with multiple “stages” that attracted hundreds of international attendees. When the closing keynote finished and the organizers came on to give final remarks, they ended with thanking sponsors and other logistical notes. I cringed. I yelled “NO!!” at my screen because after reading Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering, I now know that’s the wrong way to end an event. And in that moment, I felt why. 

Don’t worry, reading the book won’t ruin all future gatherings for you. In fact, you’re probably already aware of the problem she identifies in her introduction - that we spend too much of our gathering time in “uninspiring moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.” I know I can think of countless staff meetings and well-intended social gatherings that went off-track. Can’t you? 

Parker draws on her experience in conflict resolution and facilitation to provide a practical guide to improve gatherings of all kinds from small, intimate dinner parties to large, international conferences. I first learned of Priya Parker when Brené Brown had her as a guest on the Unlocking Us podcast. I immediately knew I wanted to read her book and dive more into her work because she advocates taking a mindful approach to how we bring people together. The examples she gave during their conversation sounded aligned with how I work, but made me realize that I could sharpen my skills.

Start with Purpose, NOT Logistics!

You might be surprised to learn that the first and most important piece of planning an event isn’t the guest list, the budget, the menu, or the color scheme. According to Parker, you need to identify your bold, sharp, disputable purpose - your why

As she explains, a networking event just labels what you’re doing during the gathering, but you could have different purposes depending on the audience. Do you want to help people find business partners/clients or help guests sell their wares or build a tribe that will want to meet together again after the event? When trying to hone in on your purpose, she suggests thinking about what you want changed because the group has gathered.

From that clear purpose, the other decisions become much easier. You can then exercise what she calls generous exclusion and invite people only if they fulfill the gathering’s purpose. More is not necessarily merrier if those additional guests threaten or dilute your purpose. A clear purpose makes choices such as group size, venue space, and format of the event much easier.

And once people have gathered, communicate the why. Hook them with the emotional reason for being there - DON’T bore or overwhelm them with the logistics of the event. During the opening, signal to them what they should expect to experience during the event. Parker suggests that hosts should “honor and awe” their guests so they feel both “totally welcomed and deeply grateful for being there.” 

She uses the example of the opening to Star Wars which bucked the norm at the time by putting off the opening credits and instead cold open with that iconic opening sequence. George Lucas got fined a lot of money by the Directors Guild, but he knew it was critical to the viewer experience. I remember the experience of being drawn into that universe that first time, as I’m sure everyone of my generation does. It’s definitely made me think about what we can do to make our session openings more gripping right from the first moment.

Generous Authority

To make tough choices like these, we have to own our power as the host and exercise what Parker calls generous authority. She warns against being a “chill” host - one that doesn’t want to impose on their guests. Running a gathering with a strong, confident hand serves the attendees because it saves them from chaos and anxiety. She suggests that the host has three roles: to protect the guests (from each other, boredom, and addictive technology), temporarily equalize guests, and connect guests to one another (because it doesn’t happen on its own).

This one challenged me. I get it. The facilitator needs to act on behalf of the good of the group and the event’s purpose. I think I do well when we’re leading our professional sessions. But when she described the “not wanting to impose,” a wave of recognition washed over me. I need to pay attention to where the people pleaser in me takes over and may detract from our hosting. Awareness is key. If I find myself falling into the trap of not wanting to impose, now I will shift my focus back to the greater good.

Creating Another Space

Parker describes gatherings as temporary alternate worlds that we need to usher people into and out of carefully. We can design these worlds to serve our purpose. Do we want to go off sight for a company team building to get people outside of their typical roles and dynamics? Do we want to create pop-up rules like no phones allowed to create more present and connected interactions? 

As I mentioned earlier, I attended a virtual conference and the technology used made me feel a part of it. The three “stages” had speakers standing on actual stages with lights and good sound instead of sitting in their home offices. I found myself engaged by the content and jumping between stages at times - very much in my usual over-stimulated mode that I get in when I attend actual conferences. When it concluded with just a quick thank you to sponsors and a jarring ‘session ended’ window on my computer, I felt a strange energy. Normally when at a conference, I’d talk to people on the way out or have a drive home to process what I had learned. 

Because they ended with sponsor thank yous and logistics, I shifted into administrative tasks, too. I stayed sitting at my computer checking email and moving down my list of to-dos. What if they had followed Parker’s advice and done the last call, logistics, and then ended with more of a dramatic close before bringing us over the exit line. I’m not sure what that could have been. Maybe a spoken word poet reminding us about the importance of the work we do. Or maybe they could have shown scenes of success. These would have left me with an inspired energy that would have lifted me up from my desk. I would have gone to find my partner to debrief about the conference or I would have journaled my thoughts or found some other way to ride that positive energy back into my everyday. 

Wrap Up 

Are you planning any upcoming events - personal or professional? Do you have a clear, bold purpose? We have been taking the time to identify the purpose and think more intentionally about how we prime, usher, open, and close our gatherings. We’ve seen improvements and know we will continue to grow as we practice. Let’s all continue to work to rid our gatherings of those “uninspiring moments” and instead aim to connect, engage, and bring positive change.