What follows is a detailed review and something of a summary of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker, (New York: Riverhead Press), 2018.
I will be making this volume a foundational influence in how I plan events of whatever shape or size. I think you will too.
Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs, terms herself a facilitator and strategic advisor, working with activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists to help them create transformative gatherings, and working with teams and leaders across technology, business, the arts, fashion, and politics to clarify their vision for the future and build meaningful, purpose-driven communities.
Priya studied organizational design at M.I.T., (MBA), and holds an MPA in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, on a foundation of political and social thought at the University of Virginia (B.A.) Honors. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, Anand Giridharadas, and their two children.
Her intended audience is people who have “ever wondered how to take an ordinary moment with others and make it unforgettable—and meaningful” (xiii). To help such people to think differently about their gatherings, she organizes this volume around the sequence that she uses in guiding clients and friends, and herself as well, in designing meaningful events.
The book has eight chapters. Chapter One, “Decide Why You are Really Gathering,” explores the foundational priority of clarity and specificity of purpose as a precondition for planning a successful gathering or meeting. That purpose should be risky and disputable, for only such an edgy meeting-purpose is worthy of your guests’ time. Such a purpose will serve as a decision filter for other aspects of the gathering.
The second chapter, “Close Doors,” explores how exclusion of possible guests helps define your purpose, while, in turn, your purpose helps you define who to exclude. Exclusion is not in itself cruel, but weak-willed or poorly thought-out inclusion is cruel both to your purpose and to your intended guests. Parker adds here that we should exclude settings inappropriate to the size and purpose of our planned gathering. Also, in ushering one’s guests or participants into the psychological space of the meeting, we should displace them from their normal sense of position and place in order to make them malleable for transformation. We must “unfreeze” them. A space for any gathering should be well-defined and in some palpable manner, even with walls, bounded off from surrounding space. As the meeting shifts themes or purposes, it is helpful to move to another space where the meeting will enter that phase of discussion. In general, when it comes to numbers and space-management, spaces should be snug but not tight. When they are too big, intimacy is sabotaged.
Chapter Three, “Don’t Be A Chill Host,” examines the need to avoid two extremes: the neglectful non-directive, non-interventionary host, and the domineering controlling host for whom the guests are above all a means to his or her ends. Leaving one’s gathering to seek its own level is not generous, it is negligent. Leaders must lead, hosts must host. And if they do not, the gathering and the guests are at the mercy of the most domineering, narcissistic, or attention getting guest(s). The purpose of the meeting must not only be established, it must be tended. She speaks of generous authority, which is really benign authority which protects guests (from being misused in any manner), which equalizes guests as to status, and which connects guests to one another. Ungenerous authority is neglectful and passive, or it is domineering and self-centered.
Chapter Four calls us to “Create an Alternative Temporary World,” designing a temporary world which will exist only once and which demands imaginative participation and the shucking of pretentious, protective, false personas. The chief way this is done is through developing rules for the gathering—temporary rules that will exist only so long as the gathering does. She contrasts this with etiquette. For etiquette, the rules are fixed and uphold a tradition, they are imperious, and exclusionary because aristocratic. Pop-up rules, these temporary rules for creative and freeing gatherings, value trying things out, are non-imperious, not one right way but rather shaped by impermanent utilitarian rules. Such rules democratize a gathering, and value heterogeneity rather than homogeneity, which is the contrary case with etiquette. And because this world will be so different from what guests expect or have experienced, it is good to begin preparing them for the experience well in advance, that is in communications of various kinds prior to the date of the event. Otherwise they will come on automatic pilot and will be out of sync with what needs to happen in and to them at the event. Rules create a kind of intimacy among participants, but self-revelation by participants to one another will take time to develop.
Chapter Five, “Never Start a Funeral With Logistics,” gets beyond planning snd preparation to implementation. She begins by discussing priming one’s attendees, which begins from the time they receive the invitation—indeed, with the very nature of the invitation itself. The time span from the reception of an invitation to the inception of the event is an oft-wasted and irrecoverable window of opportunity. Even famous people like Martha Stewart focus entirely on preparing stuff for an event, while neglecting preparing people for the event. This is a near-fatal error. One colleague of Parker’s claims that 90 percent of the success of an event is due to factors prior to the event itself.
Parker points out that every event is a social contract in which both organizers and attendees have expectations about the nature, outcome, and demands of the event. As a rule of thumb, the more you will be asking of attendees in preparation, in adjustments in their lives, imaginations, thinking, in financial investment, the greater the imperative for you to be diligent in conveying creative communications raising both image and expectation. The greater the scale of the ask, the greater your responsibility for such communications. “The pregame should sow in guests any special behaviors you want to blossom right at the outset.” (151). Finally, “every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up” (151).
Priming is not hard to do, and can be done through the concept, images and content of the invitation, as well as the name of the event, which can convey so much mystique, character, and imagination. In the priming stage one might ask guests to perform a task which, in reality, is designed to get them in a particular mood. Parker almost always sends her participants a digital workbook, consisting of eight to ten questions for which she wants prose answers. Dealing with such questions prepares the mindset and expectations of participants, and, since these workbooks are to be returned to Parker prior to the event, equip her with knowledge of her audience, and illustrations which she might salt through her lectures and facilitations. She tries to include something that helps them connect with their sense of purpose in relation to the gathering, and also something that gets them to convey challenges they themselves are facing and seeking to address. Finally, workbooks establish a strong bond between Parker and her attendees.
Because the event embodies a social contract, expectations should be made explicit. Social contracts for gatherings answer the question, “What am I willing to give—physically, psychologically, financially, emotionally, and otherwise—in return for what I expect to receive?” (156). Obviously, settling such issues in advance obviates difficult impasses later. Event planners need to answer this unspoken but key question: ma nishtana? How is this event different from all other events, What makes this event special and worth my time, effort, vulnerability and availability. When this question is not answered, you are playing Russian Roulette. Beyond the special name chosen for the event, it helps to use characteristic language which helps to undergird the ethos and theme of the event. We must also take care how we transition people into the event, the threshold experiences where they pass into the world that has been created for them, and care with how we begin. We must avoid beginning with housekeeping announcements. The beginning is a crucial time when people are assessing whether this event is worth their attention. Don’t waste it. In opening remarks, it is good to honor the people, placing them above yourself, awe the people, putting yourself above then, and then fuse the people as a group embarking on a journey together where you are the tour guide. Attendees should never be considered nor consider themselves to be bystanders. All are participants.
Chapter Six, “Keep Your Best Self Out of My Gathering,” presents tools and insights employed to prevent guests from playing a role, from projecting polished personas, from conducting themselves as advertisements for their stump speeches. It is a chapter about getting people to be real and vulnerable, since is is vulnerability and not a flourish of one’s strengths which builds intimacy and new possibilities between people.
When dealing with a large gathering, it is wise to take a select group of the leaders of that gathering and to deal with them in a smaller group context, modeling for and facilitating them in the kind of vulnerability and genuineness with which you wish to seed the entire gathering. It is always wise to have people share stories rather than sharing bullet points and platforms. And instead of sharing stump speeches which highlight their strengths, participants should share sprout speeches, discussing what is newest, most vulnerable and at risk of their current involvements. In the telling of personal, vulnerability stories that others in the room identifying and imaging themselves connecting with the speakers. In such vulnerability oriented meeting it is crucial for facilitators to clearly communicate to attendees what kind of a meeting this will be and what the rules of operation will be. There must never be some sort of gotcha environment. As a rule of thumb, facilitators should model an even deeper level of vulnerability than they expect of participants. The facilitator sets the depth of the evening through their own sharing.
In addition to the danger and habit of sharing “glory stories,” such gatherings cannot and should not be monolithic displays of positive vibes. Life is not like that, and negative scary unknowns, fears, and failures are a part of life that should be included in the gathering, otherwise the event will be an exercise in play acting. People should also share parts of themselves and their experiences unknown to other participants, even to close associates or relatives who are present! Still these events must not become exercises in exhibitionism. For this reason, facilitators must actively supervise the level and kinds of risk-taking occurring in the room, being mindful of the varying comfort levels of individual participants.
Chapter Seven, “Cause Good Controversy” explores the wisdom of dealing with hot button issues and the water under the ice in problem solving gatherings rather than playing things safe and above all avoiding offense. She believes the advice to avoid talking of sex, politics,, or religion to be terrible advice. She does not favor controversy for the sake of controversy, but rather controversy as a means of surfacing and clarifiying issues and values. She properly laments trends nowadays to avoid any sort of speech which others might find offensive, such as on the University campus. In this chapter she explores how to trigger and have a group benefit from good, that is, generative controversy? Discussions of the controversial should be planned for and managed. Her digital workbooks, submitted in advance by group participants, provide much grist for this kind of mill, and she gives excellent advice on how to do this.
Sometimes controversies can be concretized through ritualized behaviors, such as a metaphorical cage fight between proponents of opposing views. She also constructs a heat map of participants (in advance of the event), naming the hot-button issues that may or may not come up in discussion. “Issues have heat when they affect or threaten people’s fears, needs, and sense of self. And when they poke at a source of power. Touching on these elements with care can produce transformative gatherings” (237). One must be explicit about the purpose of such gatherings, the ground rules, and create a safe space for people to surface their thoughts and feelings on these matters.
In Chapter Eight, Parker urges to “Accept That There is an End.” She talks about how to bring events to a reflective, productive, and catalytic conclusion rather than having them simply peter out. She advises how to prepare people for the ending, perhaps by issuing some sort of last call, as is done in the bar business. Good endings should attend to reflecting on what happened and what was learned, freezing a sense of bonding among participants, and preparing all for integrating in their everyday life what they have experienced and learned together.
I found this to be a superb book. It is very well written, written in everyday language, full of well-chosen stories from Parker’s professional career and research. After reading this book, I will never conduct an event the same way again, because she peeled back so many layers of the onion that makes for a successful event, regardless of its nature or size. Everyone who plans events and wishes to stimulate, honor, and engage participants will profit from reading it, and from hearing the Audible book which is also well done.
My only negative observation is that nearly all of her examples are from big-bucks contexts, and many of us deal with events of a more humble stripe. However, in no manner does this observation negate the tremendous on-the-ground value of this well-done book. It will be formative for my event planning from now on.
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Much of what is described here seems to me to envision gatherings that are downright manipulative or even cultic, though the coded euphemism seems to be "transformative". I would never willingly attend such a gathering; and if forced into one due to conditions of employment, I would feel honor-bound to resist any form of cooperation and even to strive to subvert and explode its premises. This is a far cry from an event that enables or even encourages personal choices to grow and to transform oneself in conformity with demonstrably beneficial principles and techniques.
If we consider gatherings that are intended to foster participation in a kingdom-of-heaven worldview, the rules of its social contract are not temporary or contrary to tradition, but rather they are eternally fixed, unarguably imperious (commensurate with submission to a King), and determined by longstanding Jewish tradition which includes rules also for adaptation as required to meet generational circumstances. These rules may well challenge the environment from which a participant has entered the gathering. Participants' choices may transform them internally before they return to their former environment. They may require subsequent assistance to resolve the tensions evoked by the disparity between these environments. But they should nonetheless feel confident that they have been in control of their choices.