A couple of years ago, I helped my friend plan her wedding. It was a fairly informal affair, as weddings go – business casual, partially outdoors, officiated by her Justice of the Peace cousin. I drafted a reception seating chart based on her guest list, taking the typical approach of placing people together based on their relationships to one another. My friend didn’t like it. It wasn’t wrong, but something wasn’t sitting right with her.
“This is the first time many of our family and friends will meet,” she said. “Let’s try mixing up the seating so they can interact with new people at dinner. They’ll be able to see each other during the dancing anyway.”
On the big day, I watched the tables as my friend prepared to enter with her newly minted husband. The mood was boisterous and joyful, and even her grouchy uncle seemed to enjoy chatting with her husband’s free-spirited aunts.
She intuitively knew something that I only learned when I picked up this month’s Workhuman® Book Club selection, “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters,” by Priya Parker. While the wedding existed to celebrate my friend’s and her husband’s love, she felt it also had a deeper purpose: to plant the seeds for a new, extended family and friend group in which everyone knew and supported each other. She wanted people to leave her gathering with full hearts and strong bonds, and to give this once-in-a-lifetime event meaning beyond kicking off that year’s wedding season at a time when almost everyone we knew was getting married.
Gather with purpose.
Humans gather for a lot of reasons: to celebrate, mourn, mark milestones, solve problems and make decisions, learn and teach, honor, welcome, part ways. In “The Art of Gathering,” Priya says this is all well and good – but by falling back on traditions, routines, and assumptions, we miss out on giving each gathering its own unique purpose and on the magic we can create when we bring people together.
“Most purposes for gatherings feel worthy and respectable but are also basic and bland,” Priya writes. “They fail at the test of a meaningful reason for coming together.” She goes on to explain that the category of gathering (e.g., wedding, conference, reunion, meeting, etc.) is not the same as its purpose. My friend had a specific purpose in mind for her wedding, and she used it to craft an inspired event that not only served its function, but also gave her family and friends energy and inspiration.
Like most things worth doing, it’s easier to say you want to gather with purpose than it is to actually figure out how. Priya offers readers some tips, such as:
- Drill it down. If you want to gather people together, move beyond the what to the why. “Every time you get to another, deeper reason, ask why again. Keep asking why until you hit a belief or a value,” Priya writes. The reason for a neighborhood potluck begins with, “Because we like them, and we have one every year,” and drills down to this value-rich purpose: “When we have more time in the summer to be together, it’s when we remember what community is.”
- Reverse engineer an outcome. “Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome,” Priya suggests. In the example of a work meeting, do you want to align as a team? Decide on next steps? Brainstorm ideas? Figuring out your desired outcome gives the meeting focus – and saves everyone time.
- Realize when there is no purpose. Sometimes, you really are looking to have a casual hangout rather than a meaningful gathering, and that’s OK. Move ahead with your simple event, “or give people their time back. And plan your next gathering when you have a specific, unique, disputable purpose that helps you make decisions about how the event should unfold.”
Other elements of meaningful gatherings
Priya’s book is unconventional and thought-provoking, and I highly suggest you read the whole thing. For now, here are some topics to think about when you plan your next gathering:
- Gathering with purpose requires exclusion. We’re all about inclusion, but Priya suggests we learn to “draw boundaries about who belongs and why.” There are two reasons for this: First, while exclusion feels rude, including the wrong people is impolite to the other people involved. Second, a tight invitation list is the best way to bring together an interesting group of people for a specific purpose or conversation.
- Being a “chill host” isn’t cool. Many people are hesitant to tell others what to do. When it comes to gatherings, though, hosts alone have the power to keep an event from fizzling out. Exercise authority in planning the agenda, even if you’re afraid some people won’t like the activity or will feel it’s an imposition.
- Try adding rules. Sounds crazy, right? The thing is, rules force people out of their routines. Priya explains that at one gathering, the rule was that guests couldn’t pour their own drink – they instead had to ask someone to pour it for them. This made it easier to get past the awkwardness that often comes with approaching someone new and actually beginning a meaningful conversation. She also suggests a “no technology” rule to keep people from checking their phones too often.
When we get away from the usual rituals that surround gatherings and give them each a unique purpose that’s specific to us, our guests, and the situation, we have the opportunity to create deep meaning, forge new bonds, and establish memorable experiences for the people who matter to us – but it means being brave enough to step outside our comfort zones.
(Priya Parker will kick off Workhuman® Live in San Antonio, May 11-14, 2020, with an experiential workshop, “The Art of Gathering Live Experience,” on Monday, May 11, at 3 p.m. ET.)
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