Book Review by Christina Rickman
A reflection on the ways in which human beings gather and a guide on how to do it better
For my first contribution to the Knott Blog, I read The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. This book is presented as a “how to” transform your gatherings into meaningful and memorable experiences for you and your guests – whether a small dinner party for close friends, an industry networking event, or a company board retreat. Parker’s experience immediately impresses, and her lessons are drawn from both her personal life and her career as a strategic advisor and facilitator for events as wide-ranging as a conclave for council members from the World Economic Forum to a major city’s outdoor book festival.
Written in 2018, Parker’s motivation to write this guide undoubtedly stems from the struggle to find time to connect, be present, and gather meaningfully in today’s distraction-filled world. However, it was also a fascinating read viewed through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to protect ourselves from a deadly virus provided human beings with an unparalleled opportunity to examine the ways in which we gather. Amidst the loneliness, sadness, and fear, a silver lining to the abrupt hiatus of gathering emerged: people had time to reflect on the habitual, traditional, and compulsory formats of gathering. People realized that many of their gatherings, or the format in which those gatherings occurred, did not fulfill a meaningful purpose or bring them joy. The realization applied not only to professional spheres but to gatherings with friends and family. The human desire to socialize and collaborate – to celebrate, create, or grieve with others – will always exist, but our conventional ways of gathering often fail to help us achieve our purpose.
In many ways, this book offers a solution to a problem that Parker saw in 2018 but many of us only realized during the pandemic. Given the opportunity to gather again, her insights equip us with a way to design our gatherings to provide higher purpose, meaning, and most importantly, connection.
I’ll admit, I began this book interested in the author’s experiences and theories, but skeptical much of her advice could be applied to my own life. To my surprise and delight, I finished this book not only thoroughly convinced of the universality of Parker’s guidelines, but feeling eminently prepared to apply her advice to my life. Three of my favorite pieces of advice from Parker follow:
- Decide on why you’re really gathering: This may sound like an obvious instruction, but as Parker demonstrates, we often skip this step and immediately focus on the logistics: Who should we invite? What should we serve to eat and drink? In doing so, we exhaust ourselves with planning details and lose sight of the higher purpose of any gathering – to connect as human beings. Parker warns against equating category with purpose. A dinner party is a category that can have many purposes – to celebrate long-lasting friendships, to introduce couple’s respective friends, to provide support to a friend going through a difficult time. Likewise a board retreat is a category with many possible higher purposes – to recover from a difficult quarter, to recruit new members, to provide time for the board to get to know the new CEO. If we are not clear about our purpose, we often end up repeating traditional formats of gathering and lose the opportunity to create a meaningful experience for our guests. Once you have committed to a strong purpose, choices around logistics will flow naturally.
- Don’t be a chill host: Parker claims that, “chill is selfishness disguised as kindness.” When people attend gatherings, “they want to be governed – gently, respectfully, and well.” As hosts, we often feel like our job is done once guests have crossed the threshold into our event. At that point, however, it is crucial for a host to recognize and continue to exercise their authority. Parker explains that when a host fails to take responsibility for a gathering, often out of a desire not to appear domineering or be annoying, they are not relieving their guests. In actuality, they are leaving them up to the mercy of one another, some or many of whom are likely to act in a way inconsistent with the gathering’s purpose. By gracefully wielding your power as a host, you protect both your guests and the gathering’s purpose.
- Pop-up rules are better than etiquette: One of my favorite of Parker’s guidelines is to provide your guests with rules for your gathering rather than relying on etiquette, or as she puts it, “random knowledge of how rich people want you to behave.” In today’s increasingly diverse world, your gatherings are likely to include people from an assortment of upbringings. To expect attendees to have an implicit understanding of how to act when etiquette is culturally-based is unrealistic and unfair. Rules help you equalize you quests – please use first names only at this conference - and can also be fun – wear all white, take a funny photo with three different guests, don’t miss the flight home. As Parker puts it, “Etiquette allows people to gather because they are the same. Pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different – yet open to having the same experiences.” Nervous about enforcing rules at your annual conference or family’s Thanksgiving? Refer to rule two!