We get it. Professional events can be boring at best and pointless at worst. In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, author Priya Parker, an expert in conflict resolution, argues that we’re just doing it wrong. We tend to focus on the aesthetics (guilty) and social conventions of gatherings when we’d be better off homing in on the purpose of the gathering and the distinctiveness of the people attending. We sat down with her to find out how to inject a networking event, company get-together, or alumni event with meaning—and dare we say joy? Her answers were lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
On meaningful connection
I’m not an event planner or a chef or florist or somebody who traditionally writes about hospitality. I come from the field of conflict resolution, and I come to events as a person who works with groups to have transformative experiences. I wrote this book in part because I saw how many of the gatherings in our lives were suffering from a lack of connection, and as I looked at it, I realized that a lot of the wisdom that we have on gathering focused on the stuff and the logistics. Of course, you need a space, and you need food and drink, but we’ve over-indexed on those things and have forgotten to focus on what makes people meaningfully connect.
Why you should be excluding
We tend to over-include not because people are helping with the purpose of the gathering but because we don’t know how to say no. And when we aren’t clear on our goal for the event, saying no to people actually does become personal because no one’s clear on the reason for the meeting. So why else would you not want me there if you don’t like me? When you begin to have a purpose for the meeting or work event, people also start to opt-out. It’s not personal to be left out. It’s purposeful.
For more social gatherings in the workplace, like a cocktail party or networking night, the purpose is often vague. People are so afraid to have a specific point of view that there’s not a there, there. When you host in a way that’s specific, you know the purpose of the gathering. So with a networking night, you should know if the objective is to help people meet as many other people as possible, to meet people they would never otherwise meet, to find potential new clients, or to reach potential partners. Based on your answer, the people you invite should be different.
An ideal headcount
A group of six tend to be great for intimate of conversation. Groups like churches tend to do that in what they call “small group.” The downfall of groups of six is that they can’t carry any dead weight. If one person is checked out, it’s tough to get the energy to take off.
Groups of eight to twelve are great for a dinner party or a robust meeting where you want to get lot of points of view. One of the risks for this size is that one or two people can dominate the entire conversation if there’s not a healthy structure in place for the gathering.
Anything after 20, 25, 30 starts to feel like a party. One rule of thumb: take the number of people in the room and divided it by 12 to understand how many facilitators you’ll need for larger events.
Host with generous authority
We tend to under-control because we’re so afraid of looking not chill. The chill host is actually a selfish host masquerading as a generous one because they’re doing it so that they don’t look like they care too much. But if you’re gathering people, you do care. The job of a generous host is threefold: You have a duty and obligation to connect your guests, to protect them from each other, and to temporarily equalize them.
An authentic introduction
How do you introduce and connect people in a way that increases the likelihood that their conversations will be meaningful? If you present them only in a work context, it could be hard to get the group out of talking (or bragging) about work, which is not the most interesting conversation. One thing I’ve seen people do is to give a few facts about a person regarding their interests and their hobbies, and what they specifically admire about them, like “This is Robin. She’s somebody that I always go to whenever I really can’t figure out a problem.” It’s still related to work, but there is more room for the conversation to take different directions based on who is in the room.
The invitation (our favorite part)
One of the mistakes we’ve made is thinking that an invitation is just a carrier of logistics: the time and place. In reality, it allows you to start hosting from the moment they receive it. It’s the first signal to a person as to what is in store for them at your gathering.
Give it a name
First, give your event name and have that convey a tone and a purpose as to what this thing is. It’s the first moment where you can start to prime people as to what side of themselves you are hoping will show up. I talked with a woman who runs an art project in northern New York called the Wassaic Project, and she realized that when she called an evening for artists-in-residence an “artist mixer,” they all thought it was cheesy, but when she changed the name to “happy hour,” the attendance shot up. It can be that simple.
Give it rules
I think rules can be really playful. An invitation to a recent 40th birthday party had a set of charmingly specific rules that included: “Limit your time in bed,” “Don’t stray from the herd, be a strong follower,” “Make up more rules as we go,” and “Don’t miss the flight home.” Guests knew what to expect and what mindset they should be in when they showed up. It was clear someone was thinking deeply about how they could have a good time together.
In one example I love, writer Jancee Dunn asked me for advice on how to “Art of Gather-ify” her dinner party. I turned this around and asked her, “What is a need in your life right now that by bringing people together, you might have the chance to address?” She said, “Well, I’m a worn-out mom. And the other day I had a friend of mine cut me a peanut butter jelly sandwich into triangles, and when she gave it to me, I burst into tears. I realized that it’d been a long time since someone took care of me.” So, she decided to host a dinner party for other worn-out moms. She gave it a name: the Worn-out Moms’ Hootenanny, and she gave it a rule: if you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot. She emailed six friends, and they all RSVP’d within the hour. They ordered take-out and made what could have been stressful or boring and turned it into an exciting opportunity to connect.
The idea of rules is particularly helpful when guests come from a lot of different cultural backgrounds. We’re more diverse and have many cultural ways of gathering today. Having temporary pop-up rules as opposed to culturally specific etiquette levels the playing field for guests. People will thank you if you create good rules, because otherwise it’s awkward, and you’re leaving everyone to figure them out on their own. They can be fun rules that give people an excuse to do things they wouldn’t otherwise, or they can simply give guests some guidelines. I truly believe anyone can gather, and it’s extremely exciting that we can now focus on how to meaningfully connect people instead of focusing on things like fish knives.
Photo by Mackenzie Stroh
Now that you’re ready to cultivate your own professional community we have invitations to suit any event. Customize the copy with your rules of engagement and prime your guests with our follow-up tools.