The Art of Gathering

How intentional gatherings can deepen our connections with loved ones, and make routine events fun again.

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Purposeful get-togethers and nights of conversation between friends can cement our relationships, start movements, and shape our memories for years. Priya Parker, a professional facilitator and the founder of Thrive Labs, asks us to re-imagine our approach to gathering in her new book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.  

The reasons we gather are as varied as we are, says Parker. “We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength.”

But often, we skip a few necessary steps when organizing gatherings, with lackluster results. Events flourish when they’re built on thoughtfulness, structure, curiosity, and generosity of spirit, says Parker. Here’s how to pull off a meaningful gathering.

Ask Yourself: Why Are you Gathering?

Even in cases with obvious purpose (to read a book, to celebrate a birthday) there’s often a way to go deeper.

Ask yourself: What do people want from the gathering? Are the book club members only there to discuss literature, or are they there because it is the one night of the month they see their old friends?

Small considerations like this can lead you to plan the event differently. Perhaps you will schedule two hours instead of one, so friends have time to catch up. Or maybe you ask your friends to bring a potluck snack along with their books, so the evening feels less like a university lecture and more like the reunion that it is.

By having a clearly identified purpose for the event, participants will have more chances to actually connect, and not be disappointed.

By having a clearly identified purpose for the event, participants will have more chances to actually connect, and not be disappointed.

Don’t Be a “Chill” Host

People like when the host is present and engaged. As Parker says, “no one wants to sail on a skipper-less ship.” Here are three tips to be an engaged host:

Stay in charge. Keeping a friendly, but firm attitude makes it less likely an overbearing guest will take control of the gathering. Parker reminds us that hosting doesn’t stop when people walk in the door. In fact, that’s when your guests might need you the most.

Make introductions. You may have different kinds of guests at your gathering: people attending solo, married couples, old friends, and new acquaintances. Parker is in favor of making many introductions between strangers early in the night – with links to common interests, and lots of compliments.

Get people talking. Parker advocates posing questions to the group, and having conversation starters that match the theme. When the host is confident and the attendees are engaged, gently prompted conversations can lead to more depth. “A talented gatherer doesn’t hope for disparate people to become a group,” Parker says. “She makes them a group.”

Pre-Game Your Event

Preparing your guests for the gathering an art in itself. “The bigger the ask—say, if you’re having people travel long distances to attend your gathering—the more care, attention, and detail should be put into the pregame phase,” says Parker. This is how you set the stage for the kind of gathering you’d like to have.

“The bigger the ask—say, if you’re having people travel long distances to attend your gathering—the more care, attention, and detail should be put into the pregame phase.”

If you want to spark creativity at your gathering, perhaps your pregame might include sending your guests an article about how to unleash their imaginations. If you want people to show up to a work meeting with their guards down, ready to share, “maybe send an email out ahead of time that includes real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing personal, specific examples of the transformative power that a mentor had on them,” suggests Parker.

The pregame doesn’t have to be extravagant—it can be as simple as an email that sets the tone—but it’s an essential piece of planning for an authentic gathering.

Accept That There is an End

There’s nothing worse than an event that feels never-ending. Here are two ways to bring the event to a close, while reminding guests of the gathering’s purpose:

Connect one last time. Give guests a chance to reflect on the event, and what they’ve taken away from it. This may mean winding down slowly, instead of ushering people out all at once. Parker says, “Whatever your final moment is, it should be authentic and should make sense of your context.”

Transition back to the real world. This moment should be a way of helping guests take a breath and be present as they return to their daily responsibilities. You can do this by making a statement at the end of the event that connects to themes from the beginning, signalling it’s come full circle and time to say goodbye.

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