Whenever we gather - whether it's a work meeting, celebrating a birthday, officiating a wedding, or honoring a life - we enter into a shared space that has the potential to be full of meaning and memory. So why do so many meetings feel like a waste of time? Why are some gatherings tedious when they're "supposed" to be fun? While it's easy to blame the pandemic for stifling our social graces, one doesn't need to be an event expert to host with real impact. As author, facilitator, and strategic advisor Priya Parker argues, adopting a few simple tools can help ease the way and allow life's rituals to unfold with less stress and more consciousness.
Parker has been exploring the art and science of gatherings for decades and after hearing her speak on several podcasts, I absolutely loved devouring her book "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters." In reviewing her work, I came to understand why the mechanics behind Circling are so unfailing, why my wedding was the best time of my life, and the reason my dad's funeral was both cathartic AND a good time. What I had been intuiting and appreciating about these major life events was the value-driven organization involved. Indeed, when the true intentions behind a gathering are clear, the event can unfold to a desired effect and create a memorable community moment. It's thrilling to orchestrate, and really empowering to experience.
Since so many gatherings were postponed or cancelled during the pandemic, it is especially important now to do your homework and really consider the How and Why of a meeting before diving headfirst into experiences again. If you're intrigued, I highly recommend checking out Priya Parker's book here and signing up for her newsletter - it's juicy stuff! But if you don't have time for that, you can check out my cheat sheet and my five fave tips from "The Art of Gathering" below:
1) INTENTION MATTERS: As Parker puts it, "Gatherings should have a purpose which is specific, unique, and disputable." Yes, you're hosting a baby shower, she argues, but the WHY (outside of obligation, tradition, etc.) can and should inform everything from invite through to Thank You's. Another way to think of it is A: How do you want to feel during the gathering? and B: How do you want your guests to feel? Once these questions are answered, decisions can follow thoughtfully with these intentions in mind.
2) CHILL HOSTS ARE NOT COOL! My favorite concept from the book is "Generous Authority." We've all been to a party where you can't remember other guests names, it's not clear when the action is starting, or someone is taking up all the space or energy and we don't like it. A host with Generous Authority doesn't dominate, but rather guides the action, protects and connects their guests, and assumes responsibility during the event in a way that allows people to be ushered through the experience from start to finish. Speaking of which...
3) OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS MATTER: After an event, guests remember the first 5%, the last 5%, and the most climactic moment most clearly. So don't ignore the liminal moment between arrival and start of show; usher your guests across the threshold from "real life" to this new moment and be sure to end with purpose, rather than allowing things to fizzle out or end vaguely. Parker encourages you to try to embody the very reason you felt moved to gather this specific group of humans within the first few moments of gathering and then returning to this purpose again at the end, in a mirroring fashion.
4) EVERY GUEST COUNTS: Parker has identified that a group of eight people is ideal for holding a single conversation at a dinner party; twelve is good for multiple small conversations. This calculator helps determine how many guests to invite using square footage and desired density (the more packed, the more energy... to a point!). What's important here is that guests are invited because they have a stake in the event, not because you feel you HAVE to include them, and the guest count reflects the needs and intentions of the event, NOT how many friends you have. Casual, unmotivated guests can detract from the energy and momentum of the evening so grant yourself the freedom to not include every person, every time.
5) AUTHENTICITY BEGINS WITH YOU: If you want your guest to be authentically present and vulnerable, you must display vulnerability first. If you want them to reflect on what has transpired as a group and cement a bonding experience, you have to take a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect upon that. This looking inward and turning outward is a beautiful practice, and one which led to a spontaneous group sing-along during my grandma's Zoom memorial. When we leave room for magic, it often arrives, but is not without a little vulnerability and risk first.
What are your favorite takeaways from Parker's work? Do you have any advice for generating more meaningful gatherings? Any rituals that never fail to succeed? Leave a note or send a message, and reach out for a consultation if you need support planning any meaningful gatherings you are dreaming up!