Top Quotes: “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters” — Priya Parker

Background: Parker takes the reader through a step-by-step of how to host a totally awesome event — beginning with establishing a fleshed-out purpose for the event and including creating an alternate universe with different rules from the outside world. It sounds intense, but she had some great tips that I will surely use in my future life as a middle-aged socialite hosting dinner/game parties all the time (at least that’s the future that’s on my metaphorical vision board lol).

Why Are You Gathering?

“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.”

“A test for a meaningful reason for coming together: Does it stick its neck out a little bit? Does it take a stand? Is it willing to unsettle some of the guests (or maybe the host)? Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?”

“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 example, the more specific the Meetup, the more likelihood for success, said the cofounder of Meetup.com. It’s more exciting to find something that is specific that fits you. ‘LGBT couples hiking with dogs’ would have a tighter fit (and presumably be more successful over time) than ‘LGBT couples hiking’ or ‘hiking with dogs.’ The who is often tied to the what. Specificity sharpens the gathering because people see themselves in it.”

Before you gather, ask yourself: Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings? Why is it different from other people’s gatherings of the same general type? What is this that other gatherings aren’t?”

A good gathering purpose should also be disputable and this can guide you when inevitable tensions arise — guest list, venue, one night vs. two. If you commit to a purpose of your wedding as a ceremonial repayment of your parents for all they have done for you, that is disputable, and it will immediately help you make choices. If the purpose is simply to celebrate love, you aren’t really committing to anything, because who would dispute that purpose?”

“To ascertain a gathering’s purpose, move from the what to the why. Zoom out: If she doesn’t zoom out, a chemistry teacher might tell herself that her purpose is to teach chemistry, not giving her as much guidance on how to design her classroom experience as if her purpose is to give the young a lifelong relationship to the organic world. Drill, baby, drill: Take the reasons you think you are gathering and keep drilling below them. Ask why you’re doing it. Every time you get to another, deeper reason, ask why again. Keep asking why until you hit a belief or value.

“Reverse engineer an outcome: Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome.

Every meeting should be organized around a ‘desired outcome.’ When a meeting is not designed that way, it ends up being defined by process — like a meeting organized to review the quarter’s results. What, they might ask, do you want to achieve from discussing the quarter’s results? To make a decision on new projects? To align as a team? To brainstorm a list of ideas?”

“A company offsite’s goal could be to build and produce a culture of candor, to revisit why they’re doing what they’re doing, or to focus on fractured relationships between teams. A back-to-school-night could be to inspire parents to sustain on weekends the values the school teaches during the days or to help connect the parents as a tribe. A church small group could be to have a group that keeps them doing what they say they want to do or have a trusted circle to share struggles. A birthday party could be to surround yourself with the people who bring out the best in you, set some goals for the year ahead with people who will hold you accountable, do something that scares you, or reconnect with siblings. A family reunion could be to have a chance for the cousins to bond as adults without their spouses or kids or to convene the next generation in the wake of a death and create a more tolerant family reunion in line with younger relatives’ values.”

“The host knew she wanted to have a single conversation among the group that would reveal something about each person and connect the guests to one another. She decided to ask the table about their conception of ‘home.’ The topic struck a chord that was both universal and deeply personal.

“If the purpose of a book festival was to weave the city more closely together, how would it change? I proposed an idea: Why not kick things off with a two-minute exercise in which audience members can meaningfully connect with one another? The host could ask three city or book-related questions and then ask each member of the audience to turn to a stranger to discuss one of them. Starting with these questions would help the audience become aware of one another, break the norm of not speaking to strangers, and perhaps encourage this kind of behavior to continue as people left the session.”

Who To Invite?

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? Understand that people who aren’t fulfilling the purpose of your gathering are detracting from it, even if they do nothing to detract from it, because you and others will want to welcome and include them, which takes time and attention away from what (and who) you’re actually there for. Excluding well and purposefully is reframing who and what you are being generous to — your guests and your purpose.”

Diversity is a potentiality that needs to be activated. It can be used or it can just be there. A citywide book festival whose audience is very diverse but whose organizers keep them in silence, looking up at the conversations onstage, isn’t getting much out of that diversity. Giving readers time and a prompt to talk to one another would squeeze more juice and insight from difference. Generous exclusion is bounding a gathering to allow the diversity in it to be heightened and sharpened, rather than a diluted hodgepodge of people.”

The Venue

“A well-chosen venue might signal to people what your gathering is about. It might nudge people to behave in particular ways that make the most out of this coming-together. And a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people by breaking people out of their habits.”

“A dinner party is not supposed to take place in an ocean. Which is why you should think about where your next gathering ought not take place, and hold it there.”

Restaurant tables are often set up so that there is no ‘head’ of the table, with chairs facing each other in two rows. A table of five arranged like this can make conversation difficult to take off and might break the table into two separate conversations and limit its sense of intimacy. We should have simply asked the waiter to remove one of the three square tables and moved two people to the ends.”

A contained space for a gathering allows people to relax, and it helps create the alternative world that a gathering can, at its best, achieve. It can be as simple as putting down a blanket for a picnic rather than sitting on the endless expanse of grass; or temporarily covering the glass walls of the fishbowl conference room with flip-chart paper to create a modicum of privacy. Or if there’s an extra chair at a meeting that’s not going to be used, removing it and closing the gap between two people.”

Simply switching rooms for different parts of an evening will help people remember different moments better. Have several different phases, each of which occurs in a separate space.”

“The size of a gathering’s space should serve your purpose. A space that is too big might feel empty even after all the guests have arrived and reduce the event’s energy. In a large room, for example, you could take flip-chart stands and place them in a semicircle that cordons off a small section of the room.”

“Divide 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. 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 density.

Enforcement of Rules

“The Alamo Theatre realized that other theaters outsource the role of enforcer to their patrons. When you watch a film at the Alamo and talk or text, you get one warning by staff and are ejected the second time. And if you, as a customer, see another customer breaking one of the rules, you can simply put up your ‘order card’ at your table and the theatre will take care of it. What sets the Alamo apart from other theaters is that it pledges in a detailed way to enforce its policies and its employees faithfully do. And the Alamo is willing to face the wrath of its guests. Its employees use their authority to protect their other guests and the larger purpose of their gathering.

“When Obama addressed audiences, he insisted on taking questions in a ‘boy, girl, boy, girl’ fashion after noticing that men were far more likely to raise their hands and be called on. If no woman stood up with a question when the women’s turn came, Obama would wait until one did.”

“Like Obama, be aware of the power dynamics at your gathering and be willing to do something about them.”

Fostering Connection

One measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-guest connections than guest-guest connections and ends with those tallies reversed, far in the guest-guest favor.”

“Connection doesn’t happen on its own. You have to design your gatherings for the kinds of connections you want to create. A couple found a clever way to seed connection among their wedding guests. At the entrance, they left a hint to each guest to seek out another specific guest they were told shared one similar interest. They knew that absent such instructions, friends and family who knew one another would seek one another out and stick together.”

“The founder of Craftjam, an organizer of social crafting events, is an extreme gatherer. She hosts and attends more gatherings than most people I know, and she hosts more generously and seriously as well. She’ll think nothing of gathering 40 people in her home for a banquet multiple times a year. She hosts regular brunches for anyone who happens to be in town on a Saturday. Her home has an open-door policy, and she hosts friends of friends, even if she’s never met them, to give them a temporary sense of belonging when they navigate a new city. In all she does, she incarnates generous authority — protecting, equalizing, connecting.”

“She uses her authority to protect her guests in ways small and large. At her formal seated dinners, she informs guests that they can’t show up late. By letting people come whenever they want, she understands that she would be failing to protect those who showed up on time by hurting the warm up energy of the gathering. In that same spirit, if two friends are in a corner catching up, she has no problem saying to them, ‘Catch up on your own time,’ protecting those who may not have the luxury of catch-up buddies at the dinner, and whose chance of having a good time depends on other people being open to conversation with a stranger. She equalizes her guests by holding everyone to the same standards. At one banquet she hosted, she suggested that the group of 40 go around the table with each person sharing a single piece of culture that truly moved them that year. She insisted every person got only 60 seconds to do so and mercilessly enforced this rule with a ‘Time’s up.’

“She welcomes guests by telling them that she loves nothing more than the people she loves meeting one another, and that they have one job before dinner: make two new friends. And because she’s so authentic and explicit about it, people make an effort to talk to new people, in part because she’s given them the social cover to do so.

One way she helps her guests connect is by priming them to take care of one another, assigning roles to each guest like a ‘Water Minister’ to ensure everyone has a full glass of water.”

“At her wedding, she chose to group people at small tables because she was more interested in group intimacy than group energy. She tried to put together people who were different but somehow complementary. She followed German tradition and separated couples.”

“Her rules are: 1) YOU ARE THE BOSS — structure helps good parties. 2) Introduce people to each other A LOT. But take your time with it. 3) Be generous. Very generous with food, wine, and with compliments/instructions. 4) ALWAYS do placement. Seat people next to people who do different things but that those things might be complementary. Or make sure they have something else in common: a passion or something rare is best. And tell people what they have in common. 5) Within each table, people should introduce themselves, but it must be short. Name, plus something they like or what they did on the weekend or maybe something that can relate to the gathering. 6) For dessert, people can switch, but best to have it organized: tell every other person at the table to move to another seat….In almost every instruction, two things are embedded: compassion and order.”

Creating Rules

“In a rules-based gathering, the behaviors are temporary. Whereas etiquette fostered a kind of repression, gathering with rules can allow for boldness and experimentation. Rules can create an imaginary, transient world that is actually more playful than your everyday gathering. That is because everyone realizes the rule are temporary and is, therefore, willing to obey them. Pop-up rules are free of the ethnocentric, classist pretensions of etiquette because they’re made up. Their impermanence is a sign of their humility.”

We began to gather one weekend day a month for ‘I Am Here’ days, choosing a neighborhood to explore and rotating ‘curation’ of the day — basically, the role of deciding what to do and researching ahead of time. Everyone had to come on time and stay the whole time — 10–12 hours. It had to be fully on foot, the group had to be small enough to be able to sit together at a single table for meals, the weather had to be taken into account. Everyone had to agree to submit to the curator’s generous authority. Tech had to be turned off unless it directly related to the day. We learned that spending 12 hours together as a group is fundamentally different from spending four hours together on three separate occasions. The longer you’re together, the more reality sets in. You can only chitchat for so long. People get tired and cranky; walls start to come down. People begin sharing stories of their pasts, of their struggles with money, parents, religion — topics that don’t always come up easily. And it was these conversations that truly mattered and made me feel less alone. I realized that there were others in the city who had left the homes they knew in pursuit of adventure. Others who experienced setbacks in their work and wanted to talk about them but, like me, didn’t want to always be discussing work. And most simply, that there were ‘busy New Yorkers’ who were not only willing but also hungry to slow down and savor time with friends and even strangers.”

“When we followed these rules, they changed our behavior, and they changed the way people saw and interacted with us. As we walked around the neighborhood, locals sitting on their stoops were curious about this strange nomadic tribe that seemed to operate on a different set of rules from everyone else’s. We found ourselves sitting down with strangers and chatting with the owners of neighborhood bars. We spent time debating homosexuality with ultra-Orthodox Jews in a synagogue, and we got our fortunes read in one of the last working Daoist temples in Chinatown.”

Before The Event

“If you’re hosting a brainstorming session, think about how you might prime your employees to be bold and imaginative from the beginning. Perhaps by sending them an article on unleashing your wildest ideas a few days beforehand. If you’re planning a session on mentorship and you need people to show up with their guards down, send an email out ahead of time that includes real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing personal, specific examples of the transformative power a mentor had on them.”

Every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up. It’s hard to get a dance party started, for example, when guests show up subdued and in the mood for quiet conversation. Similarly, if you’re hosting a meeting at work and hoping to have an honest conversation in which employees share what they’re actually experiencing, it can be harder to do if they show up cynical or defensive.”

“A thoughtful email can take care of priming. Or priming can be as simple as a slightly interesting invitation, as straightforward as asking your guests to do something instead of bring something.”

“Before a holiday party, one host dashed off a quick email to guests asking them to send him two photos of happy moments they’d had in the past year. When the guests walked in, they found a Christmas tree decorated with 24 printed photos of their own joyous moments. They had a cocktail around the tree, marveling at one another’s moments. He was priming them for a celebration of the year by having them rummage through it before they showed up that evening.”

“Asking guests to contribute to a gathering ahead of time changes their perception of it. In my own work, I almost always send out a digital ‘workbook’ to participants to fill out and return to me ahead of the gathering. It is designed based on the purpose of the gathering and what I hope to get guests to think about in advance and consists of 6–10 questions. For a gathering on rethinking a national poverty program, I asked, ‘What is your earliest memory of facing or coming into contact with poverty?’ and ‘How are our core principles the same or different from when we started 50 years ago?’ I try to embed two elements: something that helps them connect with and remember their own sense of purpose as it relates to the gathering, and something that gets them to share honestly about the nature of the challenge they’re trying to address. They help the person think through the things they value before they arrive. I then design the day based on what I see in their answers and weave quotes from the workbooks into my opening remarks.”

“The most important part of your invitation is what it signals to your guests about your gathering and what it asks about them. And one way to send your guests a signal is to give your gathering a specific name which signals what the purpose of the event is and prepares people for their role and level of expected participation. If you’re hosting a half-day gathering for your team to discuss a new strategy, do you call it a ‘meeting,’ ‘bootcamp,’ or ‘brainstorming session’? Of these, ‘brainstorming session’ implies a heavier load of participation than ‘meeting.’”

“Beyond the name, the invitation is full of opportunities for priming language. You can use words, images, or video to signal to people the tone and mood you’re going for. When Disney sent us invites to a Star Wars premiere, the company reassured us that ‘parking for your Landspeeder, Sandcrawlker, or other vehicle will be provided.’ Simple as that: This gathering will be playful, and it is for die-hards who live and breathe Star Wars.”

“In the invite, be explicit with your guests ahead of time about what/who is in and what/who is out to help them prepare for what is coming.”

Beginning an Event

“If you start an event with a talk about logistics, you’re missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your guests. Every gathering has logistical demands. People need to know where the bathroom is and where lunch can be found. But people do not need to know this info at the very first moment of your gathering. It’s not that you don’t need time for logistics. Just don’t start with them. Open cold.

“Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people, both aweing the guests and honoring them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

“As each guest walked in, the host would start clapping, ‘Atencion, atencion!’ All the other guests would turn and look as he playfully yelled, ‘Announcing…Katie Stewart!’ He then went on to tell the room a few details about Katie that others might be interested in. The other guests would burst into applause after each intro. The intros were funny and insightful and unexpected, but he owned it, so everyone went along. In 30 seconds, he built each guest up while giving everyone in the room three or four pieces of interesting grist to connect to. He didn’t reduce anyone to their profession. He’d leave some mystery (I wonder what that crazy job he mentioned is). He did it for each guest, and each guest looked at once embarrassed, thrown off guard, and pleased. His jovial, attention-grabbing intros gave everyone in the room permission to look at one another.”

“Until recently, when med teams gathered to operate on a patient, studies showed that they often didn’t know one another’s names before starting. A 2001 study found that when members introduced themselves ahead of time, the likelihood of complications and death fell by 35%. It was when the nurses and doctors practiced good gathering principles that they felt more comfortable speaking up during surgery and offering solutions.”

“Whenever I do what I call a Visioning Lab, within the first five minutes of my opening I always say something like, “I want you to imagine you’re building a spiderweb together. That each of you has strings coming out of your wrists that connect with the other 32 people here. We can only go as deep as the weakest thread will allow. Now, none of you want to be the weakest link. The weakest thread between two of you is what’s going to determine how deep we can go together.’ It’s this psychological inter-stitching of the group that allows you and them to take risks, build together, and have the boldest version of whatever gathering they’re having.”

Try to embody, with your opening, the very reason you felt moved to bring a group of humans together. An elementary school starts the first day of school with a student throwing a ball of string to another, saying something nice with the toss. Each child continues the practice, holding her part of the string and throwing the ball to another student, and so on, until the group has built a spiderweb of string. ‘If I tug my end of the string, everyone else feels it move, and that’s what community is. All of your choices, all of your actions, large or small, will affect everybody else.”

Table Talk

“A good house rule is that people can share the stories that emerge from the meeting without attributing them to any of the participants.”

“We instructed people to begin each toast by telling a story, and to signal when they were done by raising a glass to the value or lesson behind that story. One topic could be ‘What is a good life to you?’”

“When I was 11, I got my period and told my mother. I was at an age where a lot of my beliefs and judgments came from other people’s reactions, and I watched hers closely. When she heard, she hooted and hollered and lifted me up and swung me around, laughing with joy. I learned that day, from her reaction, that being a woman was something to be celebrated. But she didn’t stop there. Two weeks later, my mother threw me a period party. She invited all her female friends rather than mine, all older women who had passed through this important transition of womanhood themselves. I received presents from each woman. One guest gave me my first pair of pink lace underwear, because one of her favorite things about being a woman was ‘opening the underwear drawer and seeing a splash of color.’ That day, I knew I mattered. I was seeing, and I was being seen. To me, that is a good life.”

“Every morning, she does a ‘death meditation,’ in which she imagines she has died, sees all the people she loves and all she’s left behind in this world. She then wiggles her fingers and toes and comes back, deeply grateful to be alive, perhaps a little more aware of what she values.”

In lieu of food, at each setting was a ‘Conversation Menu’ that led the pairs through six courses of talk. Under the heading of starters were questions like, ‘How have your priorities changed over the years?’ and ‘How have your background and experience limited or favored you?’ Under ‘Soups’ was was an invite to ask, ‘Which parts of your life have been a waste of time?’ Under ‘Fish’: ‘What have you rebelled against in the past and what are you rebelling against now?’ Under Salads: ‘What are the limits of your compassion?’”

We asked the group of our family members to share a story, a moment, or an experience from their lives that changed the way they view the world, and it had be a story that no one else at the gathering knew. We thought it might give the dinner a shot at getting people who thought they knew everything about one another to see one another with fresh eyes. Even if one or two people present did know a particular story, it was told that night in a way that revealed impacts of implications that no one had known.”

Ending The Event

“Ending well is a crucial way to cement the feelings and ideas you want your guests to take with them. Don’t end on logistics or thank yous! Do these as the second-to-last things.

“Try to avoid making thank-yous actual, literal thank-yous. Try honoring guests. Don’t use your thanking time to describe people’s jobs or areas of responsibility. Rather, find a way to honor that person instead of their job description. Honor what is least rather than most obvious about what people did in the run-up to the event. This will make your thank-yous more meaningful — both to those thanked and to your guests.”

Find small ways to metaphorically wrap your gathering in a bow and thereby distinguish it — like a teacher who ends class with a story rather than an assignment, walking your guests to the door to say goodbye, or just a moment or tight squeeze to acknowledge what has happened.”

I read non-fiction and take copious notes